Saturday, December 24, 2011

Enhancing the Humans of the Future

The summer 2011 issue of The New Atlantis carries a series of articles addressing the question of enhancing humanity through technical means: cyborgs, indefinite extension of lifespan, uploading one’s mind to computers, and other dreams of a group that call themselves “transhumanists.” It is a question fraught with implications for engineering ethics, because engineers will be the people who will develop many of these technologies if they come to pass.

In many ways, we are already living in a future where human performance is enhanced beyond what the “natural” human body can do. Is there an essential difference between a man who climbs into the cab of a backhoe and does the work of fifty men with shovels, or five hundred men digging with their fingers, on the one hand; or a man whose mind has been uploaded into a computer that controls a giant robot which can dig ditches as well as a man with a backhoe can, on the other hand? We are accustomed to seeing construction workers use powerful machinery all the time. But we might be surprised to see a gang of giant robots show up at a construction site, especially if we strike up a conversation with one and it claims to have a name, a Social Security number, and opinions on the upcoming Presidential election.

To my way of thinking, a human being with the freedom to get in a backhoe cab in the morning and get back out of it in the evening, is better off than a man (if that is still the right word) who has been permanently embodied in some piece of hardware subject to all the ills of engineered machinery, including obsolescence, breakdowns, and power failures. If all the imaginable enhancements to human performance become reality, a given human being can’t choose them all because some of them will be incompatible with others. And in making a choice, he or she will be shutting a lot of doors, not only to enhancements that are incompatible with the set chosen, but also to the door of living as a normal, natural human being with the incredible and even now not fully understood flexibility that life as a natural human being implies.

Great wisdom is found in old myths, such as the myth of King Midas. To a certain frame of mind, what better gift could be received than that of turning everything you touch into gold? If you substitute for gold the ability to achieve all the transhumanist dreams of indefinite lifespan, superhuman intelligence, artistic ability, athletic ability, vision, hearing, and so on, I think the myth’s point is still valid. Oscar Wilde is alleged to have said, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” Depending on how the thing is done, we may find that at least some of the supposedly desirable enhancements so fondly wished for turn out to be curses in disguise.

This is the stuff of science-fiction novels, and the point of such tales is generally to make us realize that we really have a wider and more complicated set of values than we often think we do. Midas found that he loved his daughter more than he loved gold, but he fully realized this only when he touched her by mistake. In my view, the whole transhumanist program of wanting whatever we can imagine suffers from a severe lack of philosophical and emotional depth. If Ray Kurzweil is a good example of the transhumanist frame of mind (and I think he is), his books about the future blessings of transhumanism are great at explaining how we may get there technologically. But the most you will find with regard to moral philosophy is the fact that he cites as his moral exemplar a fictional hero of novels for boys: Tom Swift.

Now I was an admirer of Tom Swift myself, from about the age of ten when I found “Tom Swift and His Television Detector” in my grandmother’s attic, left over from when her boys were growing up in the 1930s. I continued to enjoy the series when it was revived for a time in the 1960s, but when I went away to college I slowly began to realize that the cardboard world of technological whizzes whose inventions always made for good and banished evil was just that: two-dimensional, unsophisticated, and inadequate for helping me to understand the complex ambiguous world that real technology exists in.

I don’t think Mr. Kurzweil and his transhumanist friends have realized that Tom Swift couldn’t fix all our problems, and neither can we simply by acting like Tom Swift. Almost without exception, the transhumanists are people who disclaim any serious belief in the Judeo-Christian God and an afterlife of rewards and punishments. If you don’t have a hope of heaven, your only chance to get there is to make it yourself, and that’s what the transhumanist movement is trying to do.

I do not fault their motives. Kurzweil has personally developed machines to help blind people read, and I am sure that he and his fellow transhumanists sincerely believe that their plans are the best possible thing for humanity. But they rarely take into account the fact of original sin, and the fact that somehow, the limited scope of power, space, and time that living in normal human bodies gives us is the ground from which every human achievement has sprung.

Like most heresies, the hope of indefinite human enhancement takes a small idea which is proper in its place in the overall scheme of things, and blows it up out of all proportion. The myths of Midas, of Frankenstein’s monster, and even Oscar Wilde all tell us that we had better think in a more in-depth and multifaceted manner about the promise of human enhancements before we cross a line that we may regret crossing someday.

Sources: The summer 2011 edition of The New Atlantis carries extended discussions on “Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity.” The Oscar Wilde quote was found at I consulted the Wikipedia article on King Midas, which says that the incident of Midas touching his daughter was first presented in a short retelling of the legend by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Air France 447 Crash: The Rest of the Story

On June 1, 2009, the aviation world was shocked to learn of the disappearance of Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean during a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. All 228 people aboard died, and it took until April of 2011 to recover the flight-data recorder from its watery grave. Until then, the main clues as to the cause of the crash of the fly-by-wire Airbus 330 were some telemetered data received during the final moments of the flight that indicated the airspeed instruments had been iced up and were giving false readings. While serious and potentially confusing to pilots, it seemed like an insufficient reason by itself to make a modern jet aircraft fall out of the sky.

We now have a much fuller picture of what happened that day, thanks to the diligent efforts of the French air-accident investigation agency and the publication of a book about the crash that contains a complete transcript of the words spoken in the cockpit and captured by the flight’s voice recorder. As it turns out, the frozen pitot tubes that sense airspeed were only one of a number of confusing factors that led to a fatal mistake on the part of one of the two co-pilots. So human error combined with mechanical problems, as it so often does in accidents of this kind.

An article in Popular Mechanics magazine presents the following story. The trouble began when around 2 AM local time, the plane entered a region of frequent thunderstorms near the equator. A large airliner such as the Airbus carried a complement of a captain and two co-pilots. Shortly after 2 AM, the captain left the cockpit in charge of the two co-pilots as he went to take a nap. Instead of taking evasive action to avoid a large line of thunderstorms in their path, the co-pilots decided to maintain their course. They shortly entered the thunderstorm area, where the pitot tubes iced up. At this point a critical transition in the operation of the airplane occurred.

The Airbus 330 is one of a new generation of fly-by-wire aircraft in which a computer is in the path between the pilots’ controls and the actual control surfaces of the plane. The normal flight mode is autopilot, in which the computer is basically flying the aircraft. But certain unusual conditions, such as the pitot tubes icing over, make the autopilot trip out and hand control of the plane over to the pilots. Because of several other distractions in the cockpit, it is not clear that the junior co-pilot realized this happened about 2:10 AM. The airplane was experiencing turbulence, ice crystals on the windshield, and strange electrical phenomena such as St. Elmo’s fire. While we will never know why co-pilot Bonin (the one with least experience) did what he did, the fact remains that at 2:10, he pulled the stick back and basically kept it there until it was too late to correct his mistake.

Even non-pilots such as myself know that if you try to make a plane climb too steeply, its airspeed falls. Eventually the airflow past the wings is insufficient to provide enough lift, and the plane “stalls.” In a stall, the plane becomes a piece of metal falling through the sky. The only remedy is to reorient the craft by pushing the stick forward to get air flowing past the wings in the right direction and recover enough lift to pull out of the resulting dive. But you need a lot of room to do this in. Once the plane stalled, it began to lose altitude rapidly—almost two miles a minute—and the stall began at an altitude of about seven miles.

If the captain had arrived from his nap earlier, or if the senior co-pilot had shoved his colleague out of the way and done the right thing with both sticks, the stall might have been recoverable. But the confusion that happened next was also abetted by the fly-by-wire situation.

In older aircraft, the two pilot sticks are mechanically coupled together, so only one message goes from the cockpit to the ailerons. If two pilots disagree on what to do with such a stick, they find themselves literally fighting a tug-of-war in the cockpit, and most reasonable people would react by at least talking about what to do next.

But even in the autopilot-off mode, the Airbus sticks could be moved independently, and the plane responds to the average of the two sticks’ motion. To my ears, this sounds like a software engineer’s solution to a human-factors problem. In the event, even though the senior pilot eventually did the right thing with his stick, the computer averaged it with Bonin’s all-way-back stick, and the stall continued.

The rest of the story is short and bitter. About 10,000 feet above the ocean, the captain returned. Cursing, he realized what was happening, but no power on earth could have saved them at that point. Two miles of air was not enough to stop tons of aluminum and human bodies from plunging into the ocean less than a minute later.

What can be learned from this tragedy? Pilots of fly-by-wire craft around the world now have a vivid bad example not to follow, for one thing. Also, I hope the software and hardware engineers working on the next Airbus rethink their strategy of independent sticks and averaging. While human-machine communication is important, this accident emphasizes the fact that interpersonal communication in a crisis is vital. That single additional channel of communication through a mechanical link between sticks might have been enough to avoid this accident.

Despite such avoidable tragedies, air travel is still one of the safest modes of transport. But it stays that way only by the constant vigilance, training, and competent execution of duty by thousands of pilots, engineers, maintenance people, traffic controllers, and others. Let’s hope that the Air France 447 disaster teaches a lesson that makes air travel even safer in the future.

Sources: The Popular Mechanics article which carried much of the cockpit transcript appeared online at I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the Airbus series. And I thank James Bunnell for drawing my attention to this article. I blogged on the Airbus crash on June 8, 2009, the week after it took place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

MythBusters to HouseBusters: The Case of the Errant Cannonball

I forget when I first saw an episode of MythBusters, the TV show in which dubious claims, urban legends, and other questionable contentions are placed under the searching glare of experimental investigation by a gang of enthusiastic, ironic performers/technicians/scientists. The show has been around in some form or other since it was originated by an Australian production company in 2002, so it could have been any time in the last decade. I still regard watching it as somewhat of a guilty pleasure, partly because it is, first and last, entertainment, and why would someone with a Ph. D. in electrical engineering watch an actor (Adam Savage’s original career) and a guy whose only earned degree is in Russian linguistics (Jamie Hyneman) knock around a huge workshop and pretend to be scientists? Because they’re fun to watch, and in the only sense that matters, they really are scientists. So when I saw a news report that one of their experiments—with a cannonball, it turns out—had gone seriously awry, I had to confess to mixed feelings.

First, the details that are presently known about the accident. For several years, the MythBusters team has used the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office bomb range for filming episodes involving explosives. Apparently this is an area in a natural valley supplemented by earth berms that would stop small flying shrapnel or bullets. But as the show’s personnel were testing a cannon that fired a 30-pound, ten-inch iron projectile, misaiming caused the ball to ricochet off the berm and fly about 700 yards into a nearby neighborhood, where it shot completely through a house and ended its career by smashing the windows of a minivan. Photos of the entry and exit points showed animated-cartoon-like round holes in the wallboard. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but use of the bomb range was suspended pending an investigation, and Savage and Hyneman have announced that any further such tests will be conducted farther away from civilization, in a more distant county. The test site where the accident occurred is about 40 miles east of San Francisco.

Until now, the show has maintained an almost unblemished safety record, except for one other less serious incident, also involving explosives. The producers always include one or two warnings during each episode on the order of “kids, don’t try this at home,” and when especially dangerous work comes up they consult qualified experts for advice. Considering the hair-raising things they do, this record is an admirable achievement, but because the show is so highly visible (Hyneman and Savage were recently awarded an honorary doctorate by a Dutch university for their promotion of science education), they have an extra obligation to do things safely.

If the show’s stars had gone through the usual science-education mill and gotten their Ph. D.s in the normal way, they might have made halfway decent experimental physicists, perhaps. But the world would be lacking a good example of how the scientific method can be applied to everyday questions that people wonder about. Could Archimedes really have invented a way to set fire to a ship using the rays of the sun? Will putting aluminum foil on your car really keep cops from being able to use their radar guns on you? And so on.

Hyneman and Savage are really doing what used to be called “natural philosophy,” back when philosophy really meant the love of knowledge, and not some arcane specialty that you have to get a Ph. D. in to understand, which is mostly what it means today. Before about 1800, most science was done simply because people were curious and wanted to know whether a thing was true or not. There were no huge funding agencies, no boards of proposal review or journal referees—just a few curious guys (it was nearly all guys then) who got together in coffee shops and wrote each other letters about their experiments. And because there was almost no organized industry producing scientific instruments, they had to build almost all their equipment and experiments themselves.

Hyneman ran a special-effects shop before getting involved with MythBusters, and so the very hands-on demands of that type of work (especially before digital technology took over movies to the degree it has) gave him a set of skills that fits very well into the kind of things required by the MythBusters shows. So his lack of formal scientific training isn’t really a disadvantage—instead, he goes about things the way the average guy with time on his hands might look into them. And if you spend some time on YouTube you will find a thriving subculture of amateur scientists who have happily filmed exploits with everything from multi-megavolt Tesla coils to using high-voltage electric-utility capacitors to explode watermelons. Hyneman and Savage are the heroes of such people, who probably make up a good percentage of their viewership.

Somewhat to my regret, I noted that the Wikipedia biographies of both stars list them as sympathetic with the skeptic or atheist turn of mind. While such a philosophy may be an advantage in their particular line of work, it is by no means a necessity. Most of the natural philosophers of the past were believers of some kind or other, and that didn’t keep them from investigating the world they regarded as created by God. Many of them thought that learning about the natural world and its wonders was itself a kind of worship, because in doing so they discovered more of the mind of God.

Atheists or no, the MythBusters people deserve credit for popularizing both science and how to do dangerous things safely. Their latest mishap, although attention-getting, could have been a lot worse, and I’m sure they will be more careful in the future while investigating questions from the past, such as whether a cannonball could really breach a stone wall. And I’m glad they are continuing a long-established tradition of science for science’s sake—even if they are interrupted by messages from their sponsors.

Sources: I relied on reports of the cannonball incident from the San Jose Mercury-News at, as well as the Wikipedia articles “MythBusters,” “Jamie Hyneman,” and “Adam Savage.”

Monday, December 05, 2011

Technology Becoming Culture: Self-Winding Watches Return (Sort Of)

The other day I went into a watch store in an outlet mall. After finding what I wanted (a gift), I was standing near the cash register and noticed sitting on the counter a couple of cubical leather-covered boxes, about five inches on a side. There was an oval dingus on the front of each and some chrome-plated knobs or controls too.

After the saleslady rang up my purchase, I asked her what the boxes were. “They’re self-winding watch winders. You put the watch on it and it winds it for you.” If this were a work of fiction, I could make up a lot of humorous dialogue at this point, but the only other thing I actually found out from her about the watch-winders was that self-winding mechanical watches are now back in style, at least in certain circles of young people who I suppose have enough money to spend on themselves for things like that. And I went out of the store realizing that I had found yet again another example of Technologies Becoming Culture.

Here is the pattern, as exemplified by the self-winding mechanical watch. Before there were wristwatches, there were pocket watches. And before there were pocket watches, there were pendulum clocks. And we can go all the way back to Egyptian water clocks if you want. The point of this romp into the past is to show that the line from water clock, to pendulum clock, to pocket and then wristwatch, and on from there to the electronic (quartz) wristwatch, is a connected progression in the same technical direction: from large, bulky, inconvenient, and inaccurate (relatively) to smaller, lighter, easier to use and maintain (less winding, etc.), and more accurate. After all, the main point of a watch is (or used to be) to know what time it is. Mechanical watches were accurate enough for all usual purposes as far back as 1900, assuming you set them and wound them once a day. Then the self-winding watch was introduced, which has a weight that is slung back and forth by the movement of the wrist of a reasonably lively human being, and obviates any need for winding. But then you have to remember to set it whenever it gets a little fast or slow, which could be anywhere from daily to weekly or so. And when digital electronic watches came along, the quartz element was so much more accurate than the mechanical balance wheel that you could go literally months without having to set your watch at all, unless you wanted it to be accurate to the second all the time. So from a technical point of view that takes the simple, straightforward position that the virtues of a watch are accuracy, low need for maintenance, and reliability, the quartz watch wins hands down (so to speak).

That’s technology. Now for the culture.

By culture, I mean things such as social attitudes, beliefs, self-images, traditions, memories, fashions, and so on. Everything besides technology, in other words. When the digital watch came in, the mechanical watch people were down but not out. For a while they moved into Breitling territory—super-expensive craftsman-made watches for the rich and famous. But there’s only so many rich people in the world, and sooner or later a marketing team got together with an advertising team and decided to make old-fashioned self-winding watches cool again for lots of people.

They used to be cool for purely technical reasons: you didn’t have to wind them like the non-self-winding kind. But that was back when the only point of comparison was mechanical watches that didn’t wind themselves. Now the self-winding mechanical watch is cool because it harks back to an earlier era when people actually had to move around a lot during the course of a day, instead of sitting for eight or ten hours in front of one piece of electronics or another, not moving your wrist farther than it takes to type or wiggle a video-game control stick. But what if you’re one of these young people who bought a cool self-winding watch, only you don’t move around enough to keep it wound?

We have just the thing for you: a self-winding watch winder, which can plug in a power outlet or (wait for it) runs on batteries! So you can have a self-winding mechanical watch that’s really a battery-powered electric watch, if you trace the energy back far enough. The battery feature, I guess, is for those Caribbean-island excursions where you run your solar-powered computer to keep in touch with the office by satellite.

Anyway, for as long as the fad lasts, the self-winding mechanical watch, formerly thought to be dead and buried by technological progress, has been resurrected by the culture mavens and now enjoys a second life, together with its accessories. I tell this story in an engineering ethics blog not because there’s anything wrong with buying a watch for purely cultural rather than practical reasons, nor anything specifically wrong with buying a self-winding watch winder, though I detect a faint smell of corruption around it somewhere. But the main lesson here is that people buy things for all sorts of reasons, not just technical ones, and if some clever marketers put old-fashioned technology in a new light, you’d be amazed at what they can revive and sell more of.

Sources: While the exact location of my purchase is classified (my wife may read this blog, after all), those incredulous souls who think I must have made this all up out of lack of material are directed to the website, where you can peruse dozens of different makes of watch winders costing anywhere from $45 up to more than I would pay for a watch. But then, I’m a notorious tightwad.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wave Shield Revisited: Maybe Cell Phones Can Cause Brain Cancer

Over a year ago, I blogged about a product called a Wave Shield, sold to reduce the amount of RF (radio-frequency) radiation reaching one’s head while using a cell phone (“mobile phone” to non-U. S. readers). While I allowed that the existing body of research contained some slight indications that so-called “non-ionizing” radiation such as from a cell phone can have biological effects, the tone of my piece was pretty critical and came close to accusing the Wave Shield people of exploiting false fears. I now have cause to reconsider my words.

Back then, I wrote “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.” I still stand by that statement, but I now have more information that makes me question my earlier critical tone.

Last week Mr. Howard Kalnitsky, who is evidently the CEO of Wave Shield, came across my year-old blog and wrote me to protest my treatment of his product. I asked him for solid evidence that cell phones can cause cancer, and he directed me to some websites and a book. The book is Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, by a biomedical researcher named Devra Davis, who has in recent years turned to writing and advocacy in the environmental health area.

Davis’s book is a history of the way scientific research into the question of whether cell-phone radiation can cause biological harm to people has been funded, manipulated, and often suppressed by the cell-phone industry and others whose interests align with that industry. I have to admit that Davis has done her homework. She has interviewed numerous prominent figures such as Om P. Gandhi, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Utah; Franz Adlkofer, a prominent German biomedical researcher; Louis Slesin, editor of the iconoclastic independent publication Microwave News; and Allen Frey, who (according to Davis) published important work about how microwaves can lower the vital blood-brain barrier as long ago as 1975.

The gist of the book is that there in fact are numerous repeatable, verifiable effects that cell-phone emissions have on living tissue. Besides the aforementioned fact that it allows substances to cross the blood-brain barrier that normally protects the brain from a variety of harmful toxins, different researchers in various labs have all demonstrated that RF radiation can break DNA strands. This is one of the hallmarks of X-rays, and is the one of the important causes of cancer in people who are overexposed to ionizing radiation (such as X-rays and radiation from radioactive materials). And though the accepted wisdom was that RF radiation, whose quanta have insufficient energy to directly cause ionization of an atom, therefore could not cause such damage, there is apparently abundant experimental evidence that it does.

Davis doesn’t stop there. She cites numerous epidemiological studies of populations that use cell phones as well, some of which reveal increased rates of brain cancer. Such studies are difficult for a number of reasons. In many advanced countries, it’s hard to find a representative group of people who do not use cell phones to be the control group. And because the technology is constantly changing as people upgrade their phones, you may start out comparing apples but end up comparing oranges, so to speak, especially if the study is a good longitudinal one covering several years. Longitudinal studies are almost necessary in this field, because one of the main illnesses of interest—brain cancer—has been shown to have a long latency period, ten to thirty years, from the initial onset of the disease microscopically until symptoms appear. So it is a nasty problem to tackle.

Nevertheless, researchers have enough evidence to say that heavy use of cell phones can lead to a doubling of your chances of getting brain cancer over the historical normal rate. If you are a young person (under 21, say) and use one heavily for ten years, the risk factor may increase to as much as four times. The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the U. S. says that the incidence of primary malignant tumors in the brain and central nervous system for the years 2003-2007 was 6.5 cases per 100,000 person-years, and about an equal number of non-malignant tumors occurred in that period. To put this in perspective, that is about one-tenth the diagnosis rate of lung cancer, for instance. So if you smoke, don’t worry about brain cancer from your cell phone. You’ve got much worse problems to think about.

On the other hand, doing something that is only 10% as hazardous as smoking, relatively speaking, is not good if you can avoid it without serious inconveniences. Davis has a two-page section at the end of her book describing practical steps you can take to minimize your risk of developing health problems from cell-phone use, short of throwing your phone away. She advises not to keep a turned-on phone next to your body all day. Use a headset so your phone isn’t next to your brain. She is ambivalent about products such as Wave Shield, because they can interfere with the phone’s transmissions and cause it to emit even more energy than otherwise. The amount of energy delivered to the brain falls off very fast with distance, so having the thing even a half-inch away from your ear is a big improvement over clamping it to your head. And Davis notes that in recent years, many cell-phone marketers have inserted fine print in the instruction books telling users not to hold the phone right next to your head. As if anybody reads such stuff except lawyers.

And lawyers are exactly why such language is included, I’m sure. The most telling fact for me in Davis’s book is the news that some insurance companies are no longer willing to insure cell-phone firms against losses due to suits involving cell-phone-related health issues. When that happens, you know things are serious. It is in fact a glimmer of hope, because while the lack of research money has stifled much good work in this area, lack of insurance money may force the phone manufacturers to both acknowledge that their products may be dangerous, and find ways to make them less so. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Sources: Thanks to Howard Kalnitsky for informing me of Davis’s book and other resources on this issue. Devra Davis’s book Disconnect was published in 2010 by the Penguin Group. Her foundation’s website can be found at I used statistics from the websites and My original blog on Wave Shield was published on Oct. 25, 2010.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Destroying the Engineering Imagination

If our supply of future engineers dries up, nobody will be doing any kind of engineering, ethical or otherwise. So I think it is appropriate for me to address issues relating to engineering education from time to time, including those factors in the upbringing of young people that don’t fit into K-12 institutional studies. For example, as a parent, what could you do to encourage your children to be engineers? Or (what might be just as informative as a bad example), what could you do to keep them away from engineering?

Anthony Esolen has taken the latter approach. A professor of English literature at Rhode Island’s Providence College, he has written a book called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Of course, he is advocating no such thing, but by firmly planting his tongue in his cheek, he indirectly advises parents about what sorts of things will foster and encourage a child’s imagination. He does this through a heavily ironic tone in which current child-rearing practices, systems of public education, and large swathes of the U. S. economy come in for severe criticism.

The part of the book that speaks most directly to the rearing (or discouragement) of future engineers is his Method 3, “Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists.” With examples drawn from biographies (Edison, naturalist Louis Agassiz, amateur astronomer Charles Messier), older nonfiction books for children (e. g. the electronic hobbyist book series written by the redoubtable Alfred P. Morgan from the 1930s through the 1960s), and fiction (Swiss Family Robinson, the Wallace and Gromit animated films), Esolen shows the vivid contrast between the untrammeled freedom children in past generations had to watch craftsmen at work, read about fascinating machines and the ingenious self-reliant inventors who made them, and play at craftsmanship and invention themselves; and today’s typical childhood, which by contrast is a vast, dreary landscape of scheduled “activities,” indoctrination masquerading as education, and spare time spent in front of computers and video games, indoors, away from anything real that could conceivably be called truly adventurous.

Esolen is not bound by any desire to appear scientific, or particularly even-handed. Accordingly, he paints his picture in vivid, stark colors, leaving the impression that nothing much good has occurred in child-rearing, education, or the economy since about 1970. Mixed in with the more objective material are autobiographical sections in which Esolen recounts the hardscrabble environment of the Pennsylvania coal town where he grew up. So some of the exaggerated contrast between the dismal present and the golden-tinged past can be attributed to insufficiently compensated nostalgia, in my opinion.

This does not detract from the highly useful advice Esolen gives in his backhanded fashion about fostering what I would term the engineering imagination. The best engineers have well-developed imaginations that they use to create new ideas and products in their heads, well before anything exists even on paper, in a computer, or in reality. What Esolen has done is to show us ways that this kind of imagination takes root and grows in children’s minds, and what kinds of experiences and relationships can encourage it.

Structure and discipline are two important ingredients. The parents who would discourage the growth of an engineering imagination should keep their children away from maps, blueprints, and complicated games and stories. Also, people who do intricate skilled tasks with their hands—artists, hunters and fishermen, furniture makers, weavers—should be avoided. In the name of safety, keep children from tinkering with cars, taking things apart, playing with chemicals or fireworks, and using anything in any manner for which it was not intended. Esolen winds up his chapter with a wonderful list that I cannot resist reproducing in part here: “No soldering kits, no ham radios, no transformers, no catapults. No big drills, no routers, no table saws, no axes. . . . No vacuum tubes, no motherboards, no Bunsen burners, no sledges. . . . No gears, no sprockets, no flywheels, no springs, no spools. No trades, no gear, no tackle, and no trim.”

The last sentence is a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty,” the one that begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” and praises the beauty of “áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.” Esolen writes from a deeply Christian viewpoint, although most of what he says can be taken seriously by believer and unbeliever alike. However, Christianity furnishes a philosophical framework that gives purpose and meaning to life, and counters the attitude behind sayings like, “Life sucks, and then you die.”

Imagination is closely related to the Christian virtue of hope. We cannot hope for what we cannot imagine, and if our imaginations are stunted and withered, hope suffers as well. At their best, engineers imagine a better future for people and then work to bring it into reality. Anthony Esolen has shown us how to stifle imagination, and therefore hope. But by taking the opposite of his advice, as he intends, we can foster a better future for ourselves and our children.

Sources: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen, was published in 2010 by ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Flops, or, What’s In A Name?

It is obvious that the Russian Federal Space Agency does not have in its employ one of those multilingual specialists who makes sure that a brand name in one language doesn’t mean something embarrassing in another language. Otherwise the space probe intended to sample a piece of the Martian moon Phobos and return it to Earth would have been called something like Datari or Zeniflex—in other words, “Phobos-Grunt” would sound more like a drug, and less like a psychological problem. Far from being merely psychological, the spacecraft now poses a small but real threat to anyone residing between 51.4 degrees north latitude and 51.4 degrees south latitude—which includes most of the world’s population.

The Russians have not tried to launch a space probe for fifteen years. Phobos-Grunt (the Russian word that is transliterated “grunt” means just “soil”) had a noble goal: to fly to the larger of Mars’s two moons, take a nip out of it, and bring the nip back here so we could figure out why Phobos is the darkest large object in the solar system, among other things. Space probes that don’t use prohibitive amounts of fuel can’t be launched to Mars just any old time. There are fairly narrow launch windows, and the last one came in 2009 amid a near-panic-stricken rush which ended in the Russians concluding they’d better wait till next time.

Next time turned out to be last Wednesday. For a while, all went well as the first stage boosted the seven tons of highly toxic fuel and oxidizer, plus the three tons of spacecraft structure, into a low earth orbit from which it was supposed to take off for Mars. Only, it didn’t. Repeated commands to the rocket engines to fire were followed by attempts to wake up the system, and to receive any telemetry at all from it. Finally, on Saturday (yesterday, as I’m writing this Sunday) the agency admitted that the craft was lost. Its batteries, not designed to last long in Earth orbit, will run down soon, and after that it becomes a hazardous piece of space junk whose orbit will decay inside of a month. NASA is guessing late November will be when the hydrazine and nitrous oxide tanks will (mostly) burn up in the atmosphere before crashing somewhere.

Before you rush out and buy satellite-collision insurance, recall that two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water. Still, it’s got to come down somewhere, and no one has had to adjudicate a situation in which a spacecraft launched by one nation has caused pain, injury, or the death of residents of another country. In peacetime, that is. Rockets launched as a part of war are a different matter.

It would be easy to criticize the peaceful scientific space exploration efforts of another country, formerly a space-program rival to the U. S. NASA has had its share of space-probe failures, although most of them are at least a decade old. Phobos-Grunt had a number of experiments on board, including an international one to see how well certain kinds of bacteria fared in outer space. It looks like they will get a chance to survive re-entry, but don’t put a lot of money on them making it.

The failure of an unmanned space probe is a different order of business from the failure of a manned flight. What makes this a little disquieting is that for the next several years, the U. S. must rely on Russia—or somebody—to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station. As a matter of fact, this very night (late Sunday Central Standard Time) a Russian Soyuz is scheduled to take off carrying two cosmonauts and U. S. space veteran Daniel Burbank to the station. An unmanned flight last August using the same type of rocket didn’t work out when the third stage failed to ignite.

Given their complexity, extreme conditions under which they operate, and the onesy-twosy way space hardware is built, orbital spacecraft will probably never be as reliable as a five-year-old American car, for example. But you would think after throwing hardware into space for over half a century, the batting average of one of the major players in the business would be better than it is. Perhaps the Russian agency needs a little more of the famous transparency that has made NASA a favorite with engineering ethics writers. While transparency doesn’t automatically improve performance, it makes things very uncomfortable for bad performers, and that can be a good thing.

Best wishes to the space station commuters, and if you have any good ideas for a hydrazine-proof umbrella, send them my way.

Sources: The news on the Phobos-Grunt failure was carried by the Discovery Channel website at, and coverage of the International Space Station flight was carried by CNET at

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Fresh Water from Salt: The Environment of Desalination

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting Doha, Qatar, in connection with an engineering ethics workshop at Texas A&M University Qatar. Qatar is a small nation on a peninsula in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, almost destitute of natural resources except for oil and gas. These they have in abundance, and exchange for the more mundane necessities of life such as food and water. Especially water.

To support a population of 1.7 million, water desalination plants take seawater from the Gulf and deliver freshwater to the cities and towns, including the capital Doha. I have no statistics on Qatar’s per-capita water use, but Saudi Arabia’s is below the world average. From my very limited perspective, I did not see much in the way of water extravagance in Doha. The city was largely devoid of outdoor greenery except for small patches of grass in front of a few hotels. The larger private homes had gorgeous rose bushes climbing their back walls here and there. But by and large, it’s easy to tell that Doha is built in the middle of a desert.

Desalination is not without its environmental problems. There are two main technical processes in commercial use today: flash evaporation and reverse osmosis. The older flash evaporation method runs the salt water into a partial vacuum, which lowers the boiling point below what it is normally (around 100 C or 212 F). By arranging several stages with heat exchangers and varying pressure between stages, the flash evaporation process can be made fairly economical. But it is still energy-intensive and much more costly than any other kind of water treatment for freshwater sources.

About forty years ago, a lower-energy approach called reverse osmosis was commercialized. Crudely speaking, the salt water is sent through an osmosis membrane with pores so small that even sodium and chlorine ions can’t make it through. Regular “forward” osmosis causes water to flow from a region with lower ion concentrations to higher concentrations, with a resulting pressure difference across the barrier. To make the process run backwards, very high pressures are applied—upwards of tons per square inch. But everything happens more or less at room temperature, and high-pressure pumps use less energy per liter of water than the flash-evaporation technology does.

Both methods produce waste in the form of highly concentrated brine that is typically pumped back into the sea. If this is done carelessly, the dense brine (which also has anti-scaling chemicals added) stays on the sea floor and can harm or kill a wide variety of animal and plant life. At added expense, the brine can be diffused slowly through a large network of perforated pipes so that it doesn’t build up excessively in any one place. Or if there is a large flow of ordinary seawater available from the cooling system of a power plant, for example, the brine can be first diluted with the larger volume of seawater and then released. The second alternative makes sense if the desalination plant is operated in a “cogeneration” fashion, that is, by using waste heat or energy from a power plant (either nuclear or conventional fueled).

So far, desalination has not become a mainstream method of water production except in places that have enough cash to afford it, and don’t have other alternatives for freshwater resources. In the U. S., for example, which has the highest per-capita consumption of water in the world, we also have enough freshwater sources (so far) to avoid desalination altogether, except for a few special situations in California, Florida, and Texas.

Lack of clean drinking water is one of the major challenges in the path of improving the quality of life for billions of poor people around the globe. Unfortunately, unless a population is fairly close to the ocean and not too high in elevation, desalination is usually too expensive to be considered in comparison to simply piping freshwater from somewhere else. And it is not a technology that works well on a small scale, although I am aware of a few experimental projects which tried to develop household-size desalination plants. Even if they work, they are not as efficient as the larger units and produce a relatively large waste stream that has to be dealt with somehow.

As population pressures increase the demand for freshwater supplies, desalination should be considered as one of many options, including conservation, more intelligent utility pricing, and cooperation between private and public entities. In the U. S., the era of grand publicly-financed public works such as dams and aqueducts is mostly over. For one thing, most of the good sites for dams have dams on them already, and for another thing, the political climate in which large areas of land could be taken by eminent domain no longer exists in most places. If an environmentally friendly way can be found to power desalination plants (solar comes to mind), perhaps it will be a viable way to deal with future water crises. Here in central Texas, we are enduring the second year of a severe drought, and we’re considering all kinds of oddball ideas. But I hope the drought breaks before we have to ship desalinated water in from Galveston or somewhere.

Sources: I referred to the Wikipedia articles “desalination” and “reverse osmosis,” and a news article by Emmanuelle Landais in the Gulf News on desalination plants in the Arabian region at

Monday, October 31, 2011

Fighting Dengue Fever with Engineered Mosquitoes: Good News or Otherwise?

Today’s online New York Times carries a story about a new way to fight dengue fever, a tropical disease that afflicts an estimated 50 to 100 million people annually and kills about 25,000 people a year. The disease is carried by a single species of mosquito, so if you can reduce or eliminate that mosquito, you also reduce the risk of dengue fever. Historically, spraying noxious pesticides was the only way to kill mosquitoes over large regions, but a British firm called Oxitec has developed a clever way to decimate populations of Aedes aegypti, the species that carries the disease. They have used genetic engineering to create a line of mosquitoes that die before reaching adulthood unless they are fed a particular chemical (specifically, tetracycline, an antibiotic). So to spell doom to Aedes aegypti, Oxitec breeds thousands of these mosquitoes in captivity by feeding them tetracycline, then releases them into the wild. In order not to make the mosquito problem temporarily worse, only males (which do not bite humans) are released. These little genetic time-bomb males look just as attractive to the native females, but their progeny don’t get their tetracycline fix in the wild, and die out before they can spread dengue fever. Population simulations show that once a certain percentage of wild females mate with the modified males, the entire mosquito population should collapse in that region.

Dengue fever is a truly miserable disease, as you can tell from its informal name, “breakbone fever.” I have known several people who have had it, and although they didn’t endure the severe hemorrhagic form (which is often fatal), it was one of the worst experiences of their lives because of the nightmarish bone and joint pain. So anything reasonable that will keep people from getting this disease is welcome news in my book.

This blog is about engineering ethics, not media ethics, although I must say that the news article in which this work is reported emphasizes the possible hazards of the new development. For example, in selecting which mosquitoes to releas, it’s hard to tell male mosquitoes from female ones, at least if you aren’t a mosquito yourself, so inevitably a few biting females are always released with the males. And the Times reporter found an academic spokesperson who criticized some field tests as being inadequately reviewed and vetted with public notification, pointing out that the tests have been made in countries such as the Grand Cayman Islands which have relatively weak regulatory structures.

From what I can tell, however, the Oxitec people have followed all applicable protocols, and the first notification of their work to the scientific community was a peer-reviewed publication in Nature Biotechnology. In this they are following accepted scientific procedure rather than rushing out with a news conference in advance of peer review.

For various reasons, the phrase “genetically modified” has become a trigger for fear and opposition in Europe, especially, as well as other regions. There is no single word to describe the situation in which a technology is feared, not because it has ever led to any significant harm to the general public, but for other reasons. One cynical view holds that because genetically modified crops were first developed to a large extent in the U. S., they posed an economic threat to European farmers, who then mounted a scare campaign to induce public fear and obtain legal restrictions against the sale of such products. If this was the case, the farmers largely succeeded, and now the fear of genetically modified anything is one of the background assumptions of millions of people.

One thing that is hard for some engineers to learn is the fact that when millions of people, including potential customers or otherwise affected parties, hold a particular view about something even if the view cannot be logically or reasonably supported, one cannot simply ignore that view and pretend it doesn’t exist. This may be one reason that Oxitec chose to try out their mosquitoes in places where people generally have more important things to worry about than genetically modified insects. Most places where dengue fever is a problem are poor and have inferior healthcare systems, and illness can mean loss of a job (assuming one has a job to start with). So to people in sub-Saharan Africa or Papua New Guinea, a company that lets a few non-biting mosquitoes loose in order to reduce the chances of your getting dengue fever looks like a good deal.

No engineering can be carried out without money, and Oxitec is hoping that they can show enough good results for their process to be paid for by governments who see the doomed-mosquito trick to be more cost-effective than treating millions for the effects of dengue fever, or even worse, doing nothing. Obviously they have some challenges ahead of them, but it seems short-sighted to me to throw up roadblocks just because the whole idea of genetically modified critters is under a cloud in some places.

The best argument I can think of for opposing the general release of genetically modified mosquitoes is that there may be some sinister unintended consequence lurking in the background. But that’s why people do field tests: to uncover such problems and deal with them before they cause widespread harm. Here’s hoping that Oxitec does a good job of looking out for such problems, fixes them if they occur, and then goes on to alleviate the miseries of dengue fever for millions of people worldwide.

Sources: The New York Times article by Andrew Pollack on Oxitec’s effort appeared on Oct. 31, 2011 at I also referred to the Wikipedia article about dengue fever.