Monday, April 27, 2009

Poles Vault to Headlines: The Defective Light Pole Problem

Ordinarily, when I select an item for discussion in this blog, I try to choose one that has relevance beyond my local area. After all, I'm writing partly for readers around the world who follow this blog (both of them). So last month, when an athletic-field light pole toppled over at a high school in Hays County where I live, I thought it was odd, but not of sufficiently general interest to write about here. Now I've changed my mind.

As Eric Dexheimer of the Austin American-Statesman described in a front-page story on Sunday Apr. 26, at least eight light poles across the U. S. have collapsed in the last three years. All of these poles were designed by Whitco, a firm in Fort Worth, Texas which is now bankrupt. Fortunately, no one has been killed or injured in these pole failures, but a lot of school districts and towns are out a lot of money for smashed lighting fixtures, damaged gyms, and whatnot, and everyone who ever bought Whitco poles is now anxiously examining them. In many cases they're finding cracks and replacing them before anything worse happens. On Apr. 23, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced it would investigate the pole failures, and has power to issue a safety recall if one is warranted. Dexheimer's own investigation revealed that the design of the poles was marginal in the extreme, and probably reduced the ability of the poles to withstand high winds. The thickness of metal at the base wasn't sufficient to take the huge stresses that result when wind blows against the large area of lighting fixtures at the top of the pole, and the poles developed cracks. The official investigation will probably confirm these findings.

What implications for engineering ethics does this story have? The parties involved are the engineers who designed the poles, the firm (Whitco) that employed the engineers, the organizations that supplied the materials (a Mexican steel mill) and fabricated the poles to Whitco specifications (another Fort Worth company still in business), the agencies that bought the poles (mostly school districts), and at least that portion of the general public which was within falling radius of the poles when they fell. Clearly, if the engineers knowingly chiseled on the pole specifications to save money, the fault lies with them. The American Society of Civil Engineers has a Code of Ethics which states (Canon 1 (b)) that "Engineers shall approve or seal only those design documents, reviewed or prepared by them, which are determined to be safe for public health and welfare in conformity with accepted engineering standards." The Code has no legal standing, but if the engineers who did the work were required to be licensed professional engineers, they could lose their licenses. However, since they worked for a private firm and not directly for a public agency, it's likely that no such requirement applies.

An added complication to the situation is that the firm selling the poles has gone bankrupt (although the name Whitco was bought by a separate company afterwards). Bankruptcy in the corporate world can be like death in the human world—it can remove the entity concerned from all worldly obligations. Of course, a good enough civil lawyer can find a way to extract blood from a turnip, or at least the turnip's heirs and assigns, but bankruptcy makes things even harder. After all the legal dust settles, it may turn out that the school districts and their insurance companies are without recourse, and have to swallow the expense of new poles on their own.

It remains to be seen what the Consumer Product Safety Commission will do. Their bread-and-butter issues usually run to things like toys with lead paint, not eighty-foot light poles sold to school districts. But the current administration is taking an expansive view of governmental authority, so it's not surprising that light poles will fall (so to speak) under the purview of the Commission from now on.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody has to mind the henhouse, and foxes (that is, private companies) aren't too qualified. In some countries, anyone who calls himself or herself an engineer must have a governmentally-sanctioned professional license. But in the U. S., back when a movement toward licensing was gaining steam in the 1930s, private firms, worried about the chance that licensing would drive up the cost of engineering services, rushed to pliable state legislatures (is there any other kind?) and convinced them to write in "industrial exemptions," meaning that if you worked for a private firm as opposed to the government, you didn't have to have a professional engineer's license. And so the matter stands today.

It seems to work all right most of the time, except when it doesn't. And when a clear case of engineering incompetence shows up, as it appears to have done on playing fields all over the U. S., the only recourses are financial. If the engineers responsible are ever identified, and they hold P. E. licenses, they could lose them. But that wouldn't stop them from working as engineers, at least not in the U. S. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I will leave to you to decide.

Sources: The online version of the Austin American-Statesman article can be found at

Monday, April 20, 2009

The EPA and Carbon Dioxide: What Next?

Sunday morning I was sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper. A headline caught my eye, and I told my wife that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency just decided that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that endangers public health and welfare, which is the first step toward regulating it.

"Carbon dioxide?" she asked. "Don't we breathe that out?"

"That's all right," I said, "you'll still be able to breathe in as much as you like."

Bad jokes aside, with this finding the EPA is taking a giant step into an uncharted region of U. S. environmental regulation, a step bristling with enough ethical issues and questions to keep me writing for several columns. But I'll try to limit myself to this one for the time being.

It was President Richard Nixon who founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, back when rivers in certain industrial areas routinely caught fire and everyone from Rachel Carson to Carl Sagan was forecasting various kinds of environmental doom. The spate of new regulations that the young agency promulgated raised enough furor among manufacturers to exceed my threshold of attention for political events, which was then very high. I remember wondering what the world was coming to if the federal government could tell you what you could and couldn't send up your own private smokestack. I even knew a few pioneering environmentalists back in my high-school days, in particular a young woman who thought that founding the EPA was the only good thing Richard Nixon ever did.

Gradually, corporate America was dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a world of environmental regulations. Former industrial heroes such as Thomas Midgley (1889-1944), who was awarded and feted during his lifetime for discovering both tetraethyl lead to improve gasoline's octane rating, and chlorofluorocarbons ("Freon") for use in refrigeration systems, became post-mortem villains as first leaded gasoline, and then CFCs, fell under the ban of the EPA and other regulatory agencies worldwide. Now that some of the environmental dust has settled, most reasonable people would agree that some amount of environmental regulation is a good thing. We have seen what its absence does in areas of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, and have witnessed the comebacks of species such as the bald eagle, whose existence was threatened by the pesticide DDT.

That being said, I should point out that regulation of carbon dioxide, should it ever take place (and it looks like either the EPA or Congress will do just that), is a different breed of cat, for several reasons.

First of all, there is the sheer scale of carbon dioxide emissions. Every time anybody anywhere burns a fossil fuel—coal, oil, or natural gas—they make carbon dioxide. DDT, CFCs, and even tetraethyl lead were special chemicals made for specific purposes, and after varying amounts of trouble, acceptable substitutes were found or other ways of achieving the same purposes were discovered. None of these chemicals was used as the primary energy source for the nation's transportation, electric utility, and manufacturing industries. In 2002, the U. S. derived over four-fifths of its energy from burning carbon-containing compounds, and that fraction hasn't changed much since then. If we stopped burning carbon tomorrow, we'd go back to the energy consumption rates of perhaps 1920, when the well-wired house had maybe four electric outlets in all and a family of five with one car was doing quite well to drive ten miles a day. Substitutes for carbon-based fuels—primarily nuclear energy, with wind, hydroelectric, and other renewables coming up far in the rear—are available, but not any time soon in the scale required.

Another fundamental difference between carbon dioxide regulation and everything else the EPA has done up to now is the nature of the science and other events on which the finding is based. I know I'm up against everybody from Al Gore on down when I say that the connection between global warming and anthropogenic emissions is less than crystal-clear. On the bus ride from scientific observations to the conclusion that humanity is committing collective suicide by continuing to burn carbon-based fuels, there are a number of places to get off. One can question whether the current trends are largely due to human activity versus natural causes. One can even question whether a moderate amount of global warming will in fact be the earth-stopping catastrophe that it is portrayed to be. There is no better way to gain the fascinated attention of a bored elite than by forecasting some giant disaster that requires expansive governmental intervention to fix. Few remember the popularity of Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb, which forecasted a worldwide overpopulation nightmare that would come to its ghastly fruition somewhere about now. Instead, we're finding that industrial advancement in developing countries leads so rapidly to declining birthrates that the problem in many countries is not too many births, but too few. Mr. Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" may find itself in a similar situation some day.

For reasons that are more geopolitical than environmental, I would like to see the U. S. move away from fossil-fuel imports in a reasonable, coordinated fashion that doesn't smuggle in social engineering or class warfare under a guide of environmental protection. Maybe the EPA's carbon-dioxide finding is a step in that direction. I don't know. But for the reasons listed above and many others besides, it bears most careful watching in the coming months.

Sources: The EPA's news release about its finding is at The New York Times article I read at the breakfast table is at A useful chart developed by Lawrence Livermore Labs from which I obtained information about U. S. energy use can be found in the Wikipedia article "Energy Conservation" at

Welcome to Online MBA Guide Readers: A special welcome to readers of the Online MBA Guide who may have found us. I recently learned that this blog was included on a list of 50 best business ethics blogs by the editors of that blog (see the article at True, we're No. 50, but at least we're on the list!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Ethics of Consumption: Electric Carving Knives

Most engineering ethics concentrates on the production end of things: how engineers can engage ethically in making products or services. When the general consuming public appears in an ethical analysis, it is usually assumed that they know little or nothing about the technical or even ethical issues involved. Like babies in their parents' arms, the public is thought to be largely dependent on the kindness and forethought of wiser engineers to protect them from harm. But consumers are not always passive recipients of what engineers design for them. As consumers, they have both rights and responsibilities. You hear a lot about consumers' rights but not so much about their responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities may be to avoid buying things that are simply silly or wasteful.

All this is brought to mind by Easter dinner, or rather, one little incident during Easter dinner yesterday. In helping my wife prepare the meal, I got out our electric carving knife and sliced the pork roast.

We received the carving knife as a wedding present 31 years ago. The handle is two-toned plastic—white on top, avocado on the bottom (avocado was a very popular color in the late 1970s), with a red safety catch and knife-release buttons. The knife is a two-part affair consisting of hollow-ground serrated knife blades that connect at the tip with a sliding joint and insert in the handle at the other end. Inside the handle is a 120-V motor (you have to plug it in—today's models would no doubt be battery-powered). When you squeeze the trigger, the motor sets the two halves of the knife sliding back and forth in a reciprocal motion that makes cutting through the toughest meat a breeze, as I'm sure the TV ad said.

It is a General Electric product, model 02EK15, manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Anyone familiar with New England knows that for much of the twentieth century, Bridgeport was a reasonably prosperous center of appliance manufacturing. Much of the mid-century domestic bounty of irons, washing machines, toasters, and electric carving knives poured from the well-paid hands of factory workers in and around Bridgeport. Of course, the invasion of cheaper imports changed all that, and Bridgeport is now in the news, if ever, primarily as a bad example of a pathologically sick city whose employment base collapsed decades ago.

To some people, the very idea of an electric carving knife smacks of decadence and extravagance. After all, if a piece of roast is so tough the only way you can cut it is with an electric-powered tool, it's too tough to serve to company anyway. And in the fate of Bridgeport they see a just end to a debauched consumer culture that went over the top with ridiculous objects like electric carving knives.

But to others, an electric carving knife could serve as a symbol of a lot that was right about America. Who else was making electric carving knives in 1978? Maybe nobody, and if so, we were first in the world with electric carving knives. You're not going to win a war with electric carving knives, but the kind of economy that gave rise to them was so powerful that when President Reagan threatened the Soviet Union with Star Wars, it set off a chain of events that ultimately marked the downfall of Communism there and in Eastern Europe. After 1990, people in East Germany who could afford an electric carving knife could jolly well go ahead and buy one.

I'm not a party of either camp. I just like to use the knife occasionally when there's a lot of carving to do fast. For all I know, there may be industrial models of electric carving knives that save thousands of dollars a year in commercial kitchens. And since General Electric built this one so well (and we use it so seldom), I'm not going to be in the market for a new one any time soon. This one still works just fine.

The economy worldwide is currently in a funk, and we are hearing advice that it is our privilege, maybe even our patriotic duty, to go out there and spend money, even borrowing it if necessary, and get more of those things that make it such a good deal to be a consumer today. I suppose I could go out and find a newer electric carving knife, cordless, maybe even one with a wireless remote control and Internet access built in and a camera chip so people around the world can get a carving-knife-eye view of our Easter pork roast. But you know, I believe in buying things only when I can see a good use for them. If everybody had my purchasing habits, we'd have a depression so deep that it would make this current slump look like happy days are here again. Fortunately for the economy, for every believer in relative simplicity like me, there are several spendthrifts who have to get the latest things just as they come out, so whenever money starts flowing again, there will be people around to spend it on the 2009 version of electric carving knives.

And so I don't think we can get very far, at least in a free-market economy, with a general theory of consumption ethics. It's so individualized, for one thing, that it is hard to say anything ethics-wise that would apply to most consumers. I'll go along sticking to my ethic of relative simplicity, and my 31-year-old electric carving knife, but I'm sure the slack will be taken up by some of you folks who can't wait to see your pot roast on YouTube next Easter.

Sources: It appears that the direct descendant of my carving knife is still out there: Black & Decker, for example, still makes a model EK700K, and it's not even battery-powered yet (see e. g. Whether the "EK" in the model number indicates that B&D bought the product line from GE somewhere along the line is anybody's guess. And for an interesting view of how domestic consumer products were developed in the controlled economy of East Germany in the 1950s, see Karin Zachmann's "A Socialist Consumption Junction: Debating the Mechanization of Housework in East Germany, 1956-1957" in Technology & Culture, vol. 43, pp. 73-99 (Jan. 2002).

Monday, April 06, 2009

Google Earth's Street View: Public Boon or Privacy Invasion?

Google Earth is, simply put, an attempt to put the earth online in maps and photographs. Lately they have been adding "street views" taken by camera-equipped cars that roam the streets taking 360-degree photographs for display to anyone who types in the correct address, or latitude and longitude, or any number of other ways to indicate location that Google can figure out. While distributing scenic views of public places is nothing new, the novelty of Google's approach is the sheer scale of what they're doing combined with extreme ease of accessibility.

Some folks in the English town of Broughton thought it all a bit much when the Street View car showed up on their roads recently. As the online Times of London explained, resident Paul Jacobs saw the vehicle from an upstairs window, got mad, ran down to the street, and stopped the car. Residents were already anxious about a number of burglaries in the prosperous area, and this was the last straw for several of them, who formed a human chain and blocked further access to their town. The Street View driver eventually turned around and left, and so Broughton is one of the shrinking number of places that you can't see up close and personal on Google Earth.

I just checked to see if my own little side court in this midsize Texas town had been visited by Google Earth, and indeed it has. I can't tell exactly when, because I don't put a big sign out in the front yard every day with the day's date on it. But from certain vehicles parked in driveways I can tell it's within the last two years, and maybe more recently than that.

Would I have objected like Mr. Jacobs if I'd been here when the truck came by? Being natively technology-friendly, probably not. I might have gone out to talk with the driver, but only to ask for technical details about the camera.

I first heard about the anti-Google-Earth mob on a radio talk show focused on privacy issues. Although Google has a way for individuals (or nations, for that matter) to request that certain images be blurred or removed, this is an "opt-out" process, which builds in a bias toward display that an "opt-in" process would not have (if you had to ask Google specifically to put your street on their system, they wouldn't display nearly as many streets). What are the ethical issues involved here?

The first step in analyzing an ethical problem is to figure out who is involved. In the case of Mr. Jacobs, for instance, the concerned parties are him and his neighbors; Google; and the rest of the world. Already we've got a problem, in that rarely do ethical issues go straight from a small, local population to literally everyone on earth who has a computer with network access. I say rarely, but it's becoming more common these days as computer worms produced by small but influential outlaw groups affect millions or billions of people. Fortunately, what Google Earth is trying to do appears to be more benign, but that may be only because people of ill will haven't figured out how to take advantage of it yet.

Clearly, if what Google Earth presented was live pictures, there would be a much bigger problem. It frankly doesn't bother me much that a photo of my house taken some time in the last two years is online, but if it was live and burglars could just watch until they were sure no one was home, it would be a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, the potential now exists for someone (or something, in the case of automated malware) from any part of the world to use that information for inimical purposes, and there's nothing I can do about it until after it happens.

And that may be the best thing to do in such cases. I do not generally subscribe to the "precautionary principle," which says no new technology should be adopted until it is proven to be safe. It may be the best thing just to wait and see if anyone actually uses Google Earth's street-view feature in the commission of a crime, and then deal with the problems that arise. That's not too fair to the people who will be victims of the crime, but somebody has to go first, I guess. And to stray a little bit into the field of utilitarian ethics (a place I don't like to spend much time in), there is the advantage individuals get from being able to use Google Earth to, for instance, check out motels without going there, as I did a couple of weeks ago. So maybe this kind of good for a great number of people is worth the minor risks taken by, well, almost an equal number of people. That's the problem with utilitarianism, the math quickly gets out of hand.

As the same talk-show host pointed out, the Google Earth system is one more way of packaging ordinary people as a product. Far more likely than burglars, advertisers (or their software) will spend a lot of time studying street views. You can tell a lot about a person from looking at their house: income level, types of cars they drive, whether they need a new lawnmower, and so on. This is a use that isn't clearly objectionable, but isn't exactly what I had in mind, either.

So, as with so many other new technologies, we will wait and see what happens. I don't think Google Earth's photo cars will run into too many privacy-hungry mobs in Texas, but I'd be careful around Massachusetts and Vermont.

Sources: The online Times of London story appeared on Apr. 3 at The radio talk show was hosted by Dr. Katherine Albrecht (, whose work has appeared elsewhere in this blog as the head of a group concerned about RFID usage in supermarkets.