Monday, October 25, 2010

Wave Shield: Prize, Placebo, or Fraud?

The other day, my wife brought home from the health-food store a brochure advertising something called a “Wave Shield.” The headline on it reads, “Finally, cellular protection.” They’re not talking about body cells, but cell phones and cordless phones. Even before wireless consumer products hit the market, scientists were studying the question of whether the low-level radio-frequency electromagnetic emissions from cell phones and similar wireless devices could cause bodily harm. While this is no place to review the vast literature on the subject, I have read summaries and am qualified to express an opinion, because electromagnetics is my professional specialty. The best I can tell from the decades of research is that, if there is any deleterious effect of cell-phone use in terms of causing brain cancer or other serious health problems, it is a very small effect and probably insignificant compared to most other elective hazards of daily life, such as using cell phones while driving.

However, there have been enough scary news reports over the years to raise at least a suspicion in the public mind that something bad may result from using cell phones and other wireless gizmos. The Wave Shield company of Boca Raton, Florida has decided to cash in on that suspicion. Here is how.

Their advertisements are carefully designed to stay within the letter of the scientific facts. Every statement of possible damage due to wireless-device use is couched in terms of “may” or “could,” not “will.” But their pictures of three-year-olds using cell phones and MRI cross-sections of before-and-after rat brains subjected to RF (the intensity is not stated, but it was probably far in excess of anything a cell phone would radiate) are all designed to inspire fear in the reader.

Once that happens, here comes the solution: a little metal ring with a tiny piece of window-screen-like metal mesh in it. The idea is, you fit this thing around the earpiece of your phone, and it reduces the radiation in the immediate vicinity of the screen, say, half an inch away or so. It does essentially nothing to keep most of the radiation from the phone away from your brain. To their credit, the Wave Shield people admit as much: “The vast majority of electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellular and cordless phones comes from the antenna and parts of the phone other than the ear piece. Wave shield products have no effect on this electromagnetic energy.” But they are counting on the public’s “innumeracy” (inability to make quantitative judgments other than comparing prices), fearfulness, and ignorance of electromagnetic theory to yield them a customer base willing to pay twenty or thirty bucks for a little ring with a screen in it.

The company’s website has testimonials, which I have no reason to believe are not genuine. But here we encounter the placebo effect: the fact that taking even sugar pills that cannot possibly have any objective chemical action on a given malady will nevertheless make a certain percentage of ill people feel better. Nobody in the testimonials says they have been cured of brain cancer, but they cite reduction of headaches and a perception that the phone is cooler as benefits of the Wave Shield. The “cooling” probably results from the space opened up between the head and the phone by the thickness of the ring. You could get the same effect from a piece of cardboard taped to the phone, but it wouldn’t look as good. And the perceived reduction in headaches could be a classic case of the placebo effect in operation.

This campaign is a specific example of a common phenomenon in the advertising of technical products which, if not strictly unethical, certainly takes an arguably unfair advantage of potential customers. It is what I call the “appeal to the lizard brain.” Apparently, psychologists working with advertisers have found that while most people are capable of following logical arguments and making buying decisions based on conscious rational thought, we all have a more primitive part of the brain which we share with lower animals such as lizards. This lizard brain knows nothing of logic, and instead operates on emotionally-based criteria such as fear and a striving for the satisfaction of physical appetites for comfort, food, and sex. The popularity of large SUVs, for example, derives largely from the fact that the lizard brain thinks driving around in a big intimidating car will keep you safer than driving a small, pipsqueak car. This is despite the fact that the better maneuverability of small cars makes them safer, in many cases.

Another way advertisers appeal to the lizard brain is by saying the cautious legal things in words, but showing emotionally charged pictures that contradict the words. Wave Shield shows they have learned this lesson with their photos of innocent children using cell phones and ghastly deteriorated brains designed to make you ask, “Is that happening to my brain?” Makers of drugs that lower cholesterol do the same thing. If you watch an ad for one of those drugs, while you hear the announcer reading the long list of side effects and saying the drug should be supplemented by changes in diet and exercise, the screen shows photos of luscious, fat-heavy pot roasts and bowls of ice cream—all things you are NOT supposed to eat if you’re lowering your cholesterol. The message, of course, is that if you take our drug, you can eat anything you like and not worry about your cholesterol.

Engineers engaged in such enterprises may take the attitude that “hey, all they pay me to do is to make sure the product meets the technical specifications. What marketing does with it is not my problem.” Well, if advertising strays over the line into fraud, it can be your problem. And even if the advertising is technically within the letter of the law—as with Wave Shield’s disclaimer that their product basically doesn’t do squat, but couched in language that most consumers won’t understand or pay attention to—if the overall effect is to sell somebody a thing that doesn’t really do what the lizard brain thinks it will, the spirit of the laws against fraud has been violated.

All the same, there is nothing new about this sort of thing. The best guard against it is an educated public and a profession of engineers who will not tolerate misleading advertising of products they contribute to.

Sources: The Wave Shield company’s website, for those who just can’t stand not to know what it’s like, is An article by Malcolm Gladwell explaining how the lizard-brain approach to marketing SUVs works appeared in The New Yorker on Jan. 12, 2004, and is viewable in part at the website

Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Ending for Chilean Mine Rescue, But What Next?

Anyone who watched last Wednesday as the thirty-three trapped Chilean miners were hauled up one by one through a two-thousand-foot borehole must have felt at least some emotion as we witnessed the great joy and relief the miners and their relatives and friends expressed. This was truly the best possible ending to a type of disaster that so often ends with funerals instead of parties. Many kudos go to the Chilean, Canadian, and American engineers and managers who drilled access and transportation boreholes accurately, safely, and in record time to make the rescue possible. But the highest congratulations go to the miners themselves, who, despite rumors of arguments deep underground, managed to survive those first seventeen days on two days’ worth of rations and hope that help was on its way. The truth of their survival is probably better than the fictionalized movie and book versions that no doubt will be forthcoming. But as an Associated Press article published yesterday examines the futures of these miners, this would be a good time to look at the ethics and economics of mine operations in general.

As the AP article points out, by U. S. standards all the miners are very poor, and since the company that owned the collapsed mine has now declared bankruptcy, all its three-hundred-some-odd miners are now out of work. One miner returned to a “wood-and-tin” house where sixteen people live, and the street where he lives was lined with plastic bags filled with air because the residents could not afford balloons. Working in a mine—at least as long as you don’t own it—is no way to get rich, except perhaps by comparison to what you were doing before. If you were a subsistence farmer whose livelihood depended on the vagaries of wind and rain, you might view a mining job as a great way to improve your life. It lets you live in a city or town rather than the country, it gives you a regular job that doesn’t depend on the weather, and as long as your health and strength hold up, you can even earn enough to provide for a family.

With the exception of freelance prospecting, mining is a capital-intensive business, which means the people who put in the money to make the mine work are the ones who reap the profits. The miners themselves are paid wages and perhaps some benefits, and take the risks normally associated with mining. There is apparently no such thing as an absolutely safe mine, unless no one ever goes in it, and the day of totally robotic mining has not yet arrived. So for the foreseeable future, there will be mine owning and operating companies that hire local people to do the dirty, dangerous work underground.

There will also be a tension between spending money on safety equipment, training, and other overhead expenses that improve the miner’s lot, and spending it on means of exploiting the mine itself. This is why governments enact mine safety regulations and enforce them, because human nature is such that if firms are left strictly to themselves, the dangerous cost-cutting mines make more money and drive out the safer ones, other things being equal (which they never are, of course). The ultimate unrestricted free-market situation for mining in South America existed during the early years of Spanish exploration in the 1500s, where natives were basically enslaved to work the mines. Things are much better now, but the temptation to create a kind of de facto slavery with company towns and stores is always present, and has to be guarded against.

In the best possible circumstances, mine operators treat their employees fairly and run their mines under a consistent and justly administered set of rules that make the playing field as even as possible in a given country. Commodity prices, which ultimately determine whether a given mine is profitable, are currently beyond the control of any one country, but whenever a mine’s output is worth mining, all parties involved can work together to achieve a stable balance between safety and efficient production.

Another lesson from the Copiapo mine saga is that engineering can do only so much. The character and behavior of the miners themselves was critical in this rescue. If thirty-three college professors had been trapped underground instead of thirty-three miners, I fear the only thing the drill would have found after seventeen days would be the minutes of a long and increasingly contentious faculty meeting that concluded in mass slaughter. Despite the hopes and speculations of groups such as the transhumanists and others who think man will eventually conquer nature completely, technology can do only so much. The humanity and faith of the miners and their people aboveground made as much or more difference to the outcome as the best technology could offer. Of all the lessons we can learn from Copiapo, I think that may be the most important one.

Sources: I referred to an Oct. 17, 2010 article on the Yahoo News website at

Monday, October 11, 2010

Red Tide of Disaster in Hungary

The town of Kolontar in western Hungary is about halfway between Budapest and the Austrian border. Like many other former Iron Curtain countries, Hungary has its share of old heavy-industry installations, and an alumina processing plant stands next to Kolontar. The facility no doubt provides some welcome employment, but the preferred method of making alumina is a nasty business. You start with bauxite, which is a mixture of pure alumina (aluminum oxide, from which the metal is made) and other minerals. These other minerals do not dissolve when you treat the ground-up bauxite with sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as lye. The alumina stays in solution as it converts to aluminum hydroxide, you filter out the undissolved material, and then heat up the hydroxide to turn it back into pure alumina, now minus the other minerals.

So far, so good. But what do you do with the leftovers, especially when we’re talking about tons of material a day? The byproduct of this process is called “red mud,” and there’s not much use for it. It still has the pH (a measure of acidity or basicity) of lye, and if there were any heavy metals such as arsenic or mercury in the original bauxite, they are still in the red mud. The Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, which owns the plant, chose to build large open retaining reservoirs and simply ran the mud out to the reservoirs. As long as the reservoirs held together, this at least localized the problem. But last Monday, Oct. 4, one of the retaining walls (perhaps weakened by heavy summer rains) collapsed. According to an MSNBC report, the resulting red tide flooded most of Kolontar and parts of other nearby towns, killed at least seven people, and sent 150 or so to hospitals for treatment of alkali burns and other injuries.

The investigation into the cause of the collapse is just beginning, but the issue I’d like to address is the practice of what you might call deferred environmental protection. Thousands of various industrial processes make byproducts which, like red mud, take up a lot of space but have no economic value. In fact, to the extent that getting rid of them costs money, they have negative economic value. To treat red mud so that it could be used as fill at construction sites or even in garden soil would cost a lot, first to neutralize the alkali content with acid and then to filter or extract the hazardous heavy metals. If the firm that runs the Kolontar facility spent all this money to make red mud at least disposable without danger, their alumina would cost more than the average commodity price, and the firm would likely go out of business—at least out of the alumina business.

I’m no chemical engineer, and I don’t know what the standard practices are for alumina production. But I suspect that in today’s global economy, the other alumina producers are doing pretty much the same thing as the Kolontar factory did. The only reason we haven’t heard about them is that their reservoirs haven’t sprung leaks—yet.

To what extent should we tolerate the warehousing of hazardous materials in localities where they do no immediate harm, as long as proper precautions are taken? At any given time around the world, there are thousands of tons of highly poisonous materials in chemical plants, factories, and city warehouses, and an accidental release of just one of these materials could kill thousands, as it did in the 1984 Bhopal, India toxic-gas disaster. But because our modern industrial society demands good things that require dealing with these nasty chemicals, we put up with the danger of having them around. And it is largely the responsibility of engineers to see that hazardous materials stay under control, even if they have no useful economic purpose.

Sometimes indefinite storage of hazardous waste just has to be built in to a business plan. Because there is not yet a national storage facility for radioactive waste, most U. S. nuclear power plants have to store their spent fuel on site. The cost of doing this projected into the indefinite future is factored into the cost of doing business. Fortunately, the volume of nuclear waste is much smaller than the waste products of a coal-fired power plant, for example, so the storage problem has proved to be manageable so far.

But alumina production is a different affair. In 2009 the stuff was selling for only about $300 a ton, so dealing with a highly competitive world commodity market means that alumina producers simply can’t afford a lot of fancy pollution-remediation facilities that their competitors aren’t using. In countries such as the U. S. where environmental laws are fairly strict, you don’t see a lot of alumina factories, partly because compliance with the laws here would quite possibly price their product out of the market altogether. If you take a strictly nationalistic viewpoint, you could say that if a country such as Hungary chooses to let its industries produce cheap, profitable commodities at the expense of polluting large tracts of land and putting whole villages at risk, then it’s their right. But I doubt that a well-functioning democracy would knowingly allow the kind of dangerous behavior that resulted in last week’s red-mud disaster.

At the very least, inspections and repairs to the reservoirs should have been better. Future generations would still have to deal with the question of how to dispose of the red mud, but at least the problem would have been under control. Once the investigation is complete, we can make a better-informed judgment about what happened in Kolontar and how similar tragedies can be avoided in the future. But the answers may not be easy to come by.

Sources: The MSNBC article I referred to is at I also consulted the Wikipedia article on alumina for details of the refining process.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Innovative Help for Haiti

When the worst earthquake in many decades struck Haiti last Jan. 12, it killed over 200,000 people and wrecked hundreds of thousands of buildings. In the months after the quake, Haiti gradually faded from the news, but for Haitians, the quake continues to be a life-changing event that they will never forget. I’d like to look at some rare good news that has come about in relation to the devastating tragedy of that earthquake.

The sheer size of the housing and construction problem in Haiti has created an opportunity for innovative architectural designs that address the specific complex of needs that Haitian reconstruction embodies. These needs include low cost, earthquake resistance, and simplicity of construction. I recently received an email from a Canadian firm called CBD Building Systems. “CBD” stands for “curved by design.” Their basic notion is simple: use short pieces of lumber (they can even start from mill tailings, pieces that are normally thrown away) to make curved sections of a dome-like building shaped like a large igloo. The vertical members are just straight pieces of wood, while the curvature is established by the horizontal members. (See their website referenced in the “Sources” section for pictures.)

Normally I don’t pay attention to companies that just ask me to mention them on my site, and all I have to go on for this one is what their website says. But as the co-founder said in an email, they claim to be applying engineering ethics “beyond the influence of any building codes” and supplying earthquake-resistant structures at a cost they say is below that of some tent-type temporary housing.

If all this is true (and I have no evidence to the contrary), then I say good for CBD Building Systems. They saw a need in a place where the need exceeds the potential profit, and for reasons that are at least partly altruistic, they have made an extra effort to put their product in Haiti and adapt it to the particular circumstances that prevail in that woebegone country. I do not know if they have made a profit from their Haitian venture so far—it seems doubtful. But there is a long tradition, not so much honored today, of engineering firms that take some of their profits and put them into charitable engineering activities that don’t make money, but do somebody good.

I don’t recall the details, but years ago a profitable, privately held firm called General Radio based in Massachusetts sold a small line of aids for blind people, priced well below cost. CBD Building Systems seems to want to make money as well as benefit the people of Haiti, and other parts of the world where their products can be used. I see nothing wrong with that, especially if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) get involved in funding the effort.

Of course, one must be careful to study the details of the situation on the ground. History is full of stories of development projects that benefited everybody except the people they were designed to benefit. In a presentation by members of Engineers Without Borders, an organization that recruits student volunteers to do engineering projects in developing countries, I learned that up to half the effort expended on a typical project is devoted to researching the specific target clients and location, and tailoring educational and training efforts as well as the technical aspects of the project to ensure that a truly lasting benefit accrues to the people on the receiving end. I hope that the same kind of attention is paid by CBD Building Systems and other similar firms which are developing housing adapted to the Haitian situation.

Of course, engineering is always done in an economic context, and we can’t expect a few clever architectural ideas to solve the problem of poverty in Haiti, or anywhere else. If companies can’t make money with their products, they can’t keep making them, and so housing for impoverished devastated places like Haiti may always be just a sideline to most firms. What would really be innovative is if some of these companies set up manufacturing in Haiti itself, and provide much-needed employment for a country that is chronically near the top of the list of poor Western Hemisphere nations. That isn’t engineering, strictly speaking, but it would represent a different kind of extension of the idea that those of us blessed with the ability to do engineering owe something that we should give back to the world.

I thank Peter Black,CBD Building Systems co-founder, for bringing my attention to their work. While they are not the only firm working in the area of relief housing, their efforts are to be commended, and held up as an example of how engineering can be both profitable and beneficial to those in special need.

Sources: The website of CBD Building Systems is, where you can see earthquake tests of their domed structures and samples of their products. An article on the U. S. Coast Guard Forum briefly describes several other types of relief housing being used in Haiti and other regions at

P. S. After posting this article, I received the following comment from Peter Black:

We use a dome wood technology to create a linear curved structure 65 ft long and 24 feet wide which houses 12 families and is earthquake and hurricane proof, fire and termite proof with shuttered screen windows, doors, solar powered lights and fans. We considered manufacturing there but the infrastructure is just not there so we designed so 85% of the product's labour will be done by low skilled Haitian workers who work for $6 - $12 per day thus injecting some much needed economic development and Haitian pride. The local workers take the flat-packed wood parts, assemble the frames and erect the structure which is designed to work as a ladder so you erect the shell bottom to top then add the exterior cladding from top to bottom. It takes 3-6 days to install the structure ready to move in. The cost ready to move in is Cdn$15/ sq ft where total living area is 5,376 sq ft or 448 sq ft per apartment. Temporary structures are costing as much as $19/sq ft there.