Monday, February 27, 2012

Train Crash in Argentina Claims 51 Lives

Last Wednesday, an eight-car commuter train headed into a station named Once in Buenos Aires at the normal speed of 21 kilometers per hour (about 16 miles per hour). The track ahead dead-ended past the platform, so it was even more important than usual that the train slow down and stop at the right place. On a CCTV recording, you can see that the train simply keeps moving at the same speed until the lead car hits the buffers at the end of the track. A cloud of brownish dust flies up to obscure what becomes all too clear seconds later: the second car telescopes inside the first car, killing a total of 51 people, and injuring about 700—about half of all the people on the train. Saturday, after relatives of a man who was not officially listed as missing kept up intense pressure on rescue workers, the man’s body—the 51st victim—was finally pulled from the wreckage, touching off riots in Buenos Aires.

Railway fatalities have nearly as long a history as railways. One of the first successful steam locomotives, George Stephenson’s Rocket, was responsible in 1830 for the death of William Hoskisson, a well-known member of Parliament who failed to notice the approaching train until it was too late and fell on the tracks. Stephenson himself drove the train carrying the dying Hoskisson to hospital, but to no avail. Ironically, Hoskisson’s death was so widely reported that it served to draw worldwide attention to the beneficial aspects of the new railway technology as well as its dangers.

An investigation will be needed before all the essential facts are known about the Argentine disaster. But the driver survived and told reporters that the brakes failed, and that he had tried to contact supervisors by radio earlier about brake problems but was told to “carry on.” Earlier accidents have happened in the same area, and poor maintenance has been cited as a contributory factor in the past. Recordings, inspection of equipment, and other evidence will either confirm or contradict the driver’s claims. But a lot can be learned already from the way the Buenos Aires commuter rail transportation system is operated.

Privately owned companies contract with the government for the privilege of operating the trains, but apparently they are restricted by regulations governing fares and fare increases. It is often useful in engineering-ethics situations to list the interested and affected parties in the case. In this situation the major players are: (1) the commuting public, which has only indirect control of the system through their elected representatives’ regulations, but has to use and pay for the system; (2) the railway workers, including operating and maintenance personnel; (3) the management and owners of the private firms that run the railway concessions; (4) the Argentine government agencies and officials who regulate, deal with, inspect, and investigate railways and incidents such as this accident; and (5) the general Argentine public which does not ride the Buenos Aires commuter-rail system, but which elects government officials, pays taxes, and shares in such national tragedies as railway accidents of this kind.

Worldwide, rail-based public transportation systems are rarely profitable on a strictly private-enterprise basis, despite the superficial attractiveness of monopoly status and large customer bases. Despite economies of scale, the personnel, maintenance, and upkeep costs of rail systems would price them out of the market they are intended to serve—namely, the poorer populace who can’t afford cars—if they charged enough to both make a reasonable profit and reinvest sufficiently to allow for depreciation of equipment and so on. This is why, after a disastrous experiment with private ownership of subways in New York City around the turn of the 20th century, the city government took over all of them and now operates the subways with a deficit made up with general tax revenues.

The Buenos Aires system went the other way a decade or so ago: the national railway system was largely privatized. Faced with a situation where raising fares is not an option, a private firm compelled to make a profit is going to cut costs by deferring maintenance and improvements. But you can only do that so far until something dreadful happens such as the accident of last week.

The particular question of what immediately caused this accident will very likely be cleared up in a matter of months, if not weeks. But that leaves the larger problem of how to make sure that accidents like this don’t happen again. For every major accident with a mechanical cause, there are usually dozens of near-miss incidents that serve as warnings to perceptive engineers and operators, unless their hands are tied by lack of resources. It looks like major changes will be needed in the economics and management of Argentine commuter rail lines if we can hope to avoid another such disaster in the future.

Sources: I used several articles on the accident, specifically these: from the BBC news services at and, Britain’s Daily Mirror at, and Yahoo News at

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Half a Century After Glenn’s Flight, NASA Tries to Make Up Its Mind

In February of 1962, I was eight years old. That was plenty old enough to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS-TV narrate the countdown for astronaut John Glenn’s attempt to be the first American to orbit the earth. I say “attempt” because at the time, nobody knew for sure if it would work. When the rocket fired up and sailed safely into the sky, Cronkite dropped his objectivity enough to say, “Go, baby!” The world of space flight (and journalism, for that matter) would never be the same.

By that time, NASA had gotten on the one track to the moon, passing by logical waystations during the sixties: the Mercury single-man capsule, the Gemini two-man unit, and the Apollo, which became the way we ultimately got to the moon. There was a breathtaking simplicity about the program, which belied the infinite technical complexities of manned spaceflight. We were going to land men on the moon before the Russians did—it was that simple. Even an eight-year-old could understand that. And we succeeded.

Now I’m 58, John Glenn is 90, and NASA—well, I hate to admit it, but NASA is no longer the stripped-down, single-minded Cold-War-by-other-means fighting machine it was. Try explaining the current NASA budget to an eight-year-old, or a twenty-eight-year-old. Unless he has degrees in accounting and political science, he’s not likely to see much to be excited about.

There are two main initiatives at NASA these days concerning manned space flight (all of which, incidentally, is anathema to many scientists who would rather see dollars go to more efficient unmanned robotic flights). One initiative is called the Commercial Crew Program. This is aimed at developing not only crews, but an entire program, that commercial firms design and build with NASA’s “guidance.” NASA has always had contractors—it has never been in the business of manufacturing major flight hardware without commercial help—but the Commercial Crew Program is intended to move the entire enterprise closer to a free-market model, somewhat like the airlines. Of course, the average profit margin of commercial airlines over several decades is about zero, so that may not be a good model. Add to that the fact that there are not a lot of customers for manned-space-flight services, other than the U. S. and some other governments, and you have a very strange economic proposition, to say the least. This has not kept lots of companies from flocking to NASA’s information sessions to see how they can get a piece of the pie, but when Congress cut the 2011 allocation for this project to only $400 million, the schedule stretched out and it is not clear that NASA will get the $830 million it’s asking for in the present budget cycle.

One big reason for that is the Obama administration is proposing an overall flat budget for 2013 for NASA, which means the increase for the Commercial Crew Program might have to come out of the other big initiative for manned space flight, the Orion/Space Launch System. Orion (for short) is intended for deep-space activities, to asteroids or beyond. It has gone through several transformations, but clearly needs a lot of money (around $1 billion a year) to go anywhere anytime soon, which means probably ten to fifteen years. Orion is the logical extension of the quasi-religious feeling that man is destined to keep on exploring farther and farther reaches of space. Its supporters include hard-core spaceniks and a lot of Congressmen and contractors (many in Texas) who want to keep NASA’s existing facilities busy and its employees employed. If all NASA did was to contract out manned space flight to commercial firms, you could do that out of a couple of buildings in Washington, and what would we do with all those other labs and things?

I am sympathetic with people who do not want to lose their jobs. But I would also like to know that their jobs are worth doing, and will issue in some meritorious achieved goal within the foreseeable future. The way NASA is thrashing around like a canvas bag full of cats fighting does not encourage the belief that we will see strong, clear, directed effort come from the agency or its contractors any time soon.

NASA was once a great organization, and achieved great things. It still has pockets of high-quality and unique talent that we should keep around in some form for reasons of national pride and capability. John Glenn was once a strong, brave, 40-year-old astronaut. And in 1998, at age 77 he became the oldest person to go into space, on a Space Shuttle flight. But even Glenn has wisely put space flight behind him, personally, and long ago passed the torch to younger people.

As some commentators have proposed recently, perhaps NASA in its present form has outlived its ability to achieve simple, clear goals, and has become such a battered political football that it would be easier to start over with two or three different agencies, each directed at a specific goal that you could explain to an eight-year-old. But the way things are going with political paralysis in Washington, the chances of this getting done are small.

Manned space flight is a novel activity in historical terms, deeply tied to technology, which I think deserves to continue on some basis. It is so costly that turning the whole thing over to private hands is practically to give up, so the government needs to be involved at some level. But trying to do too many things at once, especially when you’re older, is a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for a lot of wasted effort. And engineers hate to waste effort.

Sources: I consulted two articles on recent NASA activities in the Commercial Crew Program, one published by Aviation Week at

and another at a website that promotes the space industry called

For those of you who never saw it, YouTube has a clip of the actual launch of John Glenn’s three-orbit flight on Feb. 22, 1962 at

Monday, February 13, 2012

Discovery Channel Seeks a Top Engineer

Writing a blog attracts many kinds of responses, some of which are more interesting than others. A few days ago I got an email from someone at an outfit called Pilgrim Productions. Turns out they are looking for cast members for a new reality show, and the reason they contacted me, I suppose, is because the reality show has the tentative title of “Top Engineer.” This fact filled me with mixed emotions, and while poetry is allegedly the best way to express mixed emotions, I will forego any attempts at verse and try to say how I feel in ordinary prose.

Part of me is glad to see this. A few years ago the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, my 300,000-member professional society, sponsored a discussion of how to get a popular TV show going whose theme would be connected with engineering. This was back when most TV shows were still scripted, and so the ideas that came out were pretty feeble, along the lines of “My Three Sons” only we follow Fred MacMurray to his engineering office instead of staying home. But now that reality shows are all the rage, I can easily picture some kind of built-it challenge carried out in a well-equipped design lab. The Discovery Channel has procured the cooperation of an outfit called WET, which makes fancy servo-controlled fountains for places like Dubai, so they probably have plenty of toys in their labs to do fun things with. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, I recently had a small personal experience with the way TV deals with intellectually challenging concepts, and I am not optimistic about how that aspect of engineering is going to fare on the small screen. And face it, engineering of any sophistication has to involve some intellectually challenging concepts. What happened was that I agreed to be interviewed for a TV show called “Weird or What?” Outside the U. S. it’s hosted by William Shatner, but some legal tussle or other prevents it from being shown in the fifty states. So sometime last fall, those of you reading this in certain English-speaking countries might have had the privilege of seeing yours truly talking about ball lightning, which is a current research topic of mine.

As is always the case, they taped far more of me than they used, and I expected that. I even rigged up a demo to show them that small burning spheres of liquid silicon looks sort of like ball lightning, I made a joke on camera that was so funny the cameraman laughed, and I tried to be as serious and clear as possible when they asked me specific questions. The silicon didn’t fit into their narrative, and as for the joke, all I can figure is that the only person on that show who is allowed to be funny is William Shatner. And how funny he is, I will allow the unbiased viewer to decide.

What they used me for was one side of a conflict between wild-and-crazy theories of a certain incident on a Canadian island in the 1960s, and the “sober-scientist” view. I played the sober scientist, and they found some other folks with interesting backgrounds to propose the wild-and-crazy theories. And believe me, when I saw the final DVD of the show, I was halfway embarrassed even to be seen in the same segment with some of those people, even though I was presented as saying reasonable, scientifically-based things that countered their wackiness.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. TV has to have conflict, movement, and surprises, or its viewers fall asleep. Sometimes they fall asleep anyway, but the kind of thing I give to my students every day in the lecture room would not make good TV, unless you could give all the viewers a grade for comprehension at the end. And the sponsors wouldn’t like that.

Judging by some of the legalese on the Pilgrim Production website and the casting call, they are not looking for your standard-issue behind-the-keyboard type of engineer, which, for better or worse, describes most engineers today. They want “visual effects experts, accomplished home shop machinists, contractors and engineers with backgrounds in electrical, civil, structural, or mechanical engineering.” And in all caps near the bottom we find this interesting section: “As part of your participation in and/or in connection with the program, you will engage in activities that may be considered dangerous, including without limitation activities involving electrical and hydraulic equipment, power tools and machinery, heavy objects, combustibles, and other potentially hazardous materials and fire.” I like that “and fire” at the end. Some legal intern probably put that in.

I can also tell you this. If you are physically unappealing, without being so ugly that it’s funny, you probably won’t get in either. For a TV show designed merely to entertain, that’s not so bad, but it’s too bad that TV is so heavily involved in the way we choose politicians today. If you look at a photo album of congressmen from the pre-TV era, you will notice that a good many of them, including some of the greatest ones, were simply not much to look at. In particular, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrated yesterday, was described not entirely inaccurately as homely as a baboon. He never would have made it if they had had TV in 1860.

So I wish the best to the producers of “Top Engineer” and hope that the image of engineering which emerges from their labors bears at least some slight resemblance to what real engineers really do most of the time. If they do their job right, the show will be fun to watch, nobody will get killed (although it will look like someone might be), and maybe some young people watching will get the idea that engineering is fun as well as remunerative, and it certainly can be both. But be forewarned: most engineers aren’t that good-looking.

Sources: The best rundown on what Pilgrim Productions is looking for can be found at their website, If you’re interested, check it out soon because their deadline for submitting applications is March 7.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Bad Apple in China?

Apple Inc. currently enjoys one of the most positive consumer perceptions of any company in America. A New York Times poll last November revealed that more than half of those surveyed couldn’t think of anything negative about the firm, and when pressed, the worst thing they could say was that their products cost too much. So when the same paper came out with a long, carefully researched story about hazardous and onerous working conditions in China where Apple products are made, it was a little bit like reading that Santa Claus was hauled in for heroin possession.

Full disclosure: My wife and I have been Macintosh fans since the early 1980s, and I bought her an iPad this last Christmas. But when I told her about some of the things I read about how they were made, she may never view her iPad in the same light again.

First, the salient facts. Most consumer electronics products are made in China in factories that are Chinese-owned and operated. But the ties between Chinese manufacturers and U. S.-based firms like Apple are very close. When Apple chooses a new supplier, they ask all kinds of nosy questions about costs, facilities, numbers of workers, and so on, and allow only a small profit margin. Since 2005, they also inform the supplier about Apple’s “Supplier Code of Conduct” which reportedly requires adherence to basic standards of safety, worker rights, and other good things. And commendably, Apple actually conducts audits of its suppliers and has found and publicly reported many violations of the Code—so many, in fact, that some former Apple executives say it is largely window-dressing, and Apple may not be that serious about enforcement. Apple says it will drop a supplier if too many violations are found, but in the case of a firm such as Foxconn, which makes about 40% of all the consumer electronics manufactured in China, alternative suppliers simply may not be there. So in some cases it’s a matter of either Foxconn or no (or fewer) iPads. And in the highly competitive and fast-paced world of consumer electronics, an entire generation of products can come and go in a few months. Supply delays can mean not just reduced profits, but complete failure.

How bad are conditions for workers in Chinese consumer-electronics factories? It depends. If you picked up a well-paid auto worker from his production line making Toyota pickups in San Antonio, say, and plopped him down so he was making less than $7,000 a year working ten- to twelve-hour days, five or six days a week, and living in a dorm with nine other guys in a three-room apartment, and nothing to eat but Chinese food—well, he’d scream bloody murder. On the other hand, if you were like Times-profiled worker Lai Xiaodong, taking the same job would seem at first glance to be a stroke of good fortune, because you likely grew up in a small farming community where city life in Chengdu looked like Heaven, even with the long hours and crowded living conditions (Xiaodong could afford a single apartment, tiny as it was). Unfortunately, Mr. Lai was one of two workers killed in an apparent aluminum-dust explosion last May at a plant that makes iPad cases. That beautiful smooth-grained aluminum finish is not easy to make, and the plants where the cases are finished are potential firetraps. The firm where the explosions happened has since made safety improvements, but there are millions of other Chinese workers at hundreds of other plants where similar accidents may be just waiting to happen.

Back when most products sold in America were also made in America, you could sometimes buy an item that was made by someone you knew personally. But even by the 1800s, this was increasingly not the case: first raw materials, then later low-tech manufactured goods such as toys and clothing began to be imported from abroad in large volumes. Geography textbooks from the 1930s showed photographs of supposedly happy natives carrying bushels of raw rubber so that Mr. Ford could sell more cars with rubber tires. The happiness of the natives was assumed, not verified, and in fact, exploitation of workers of all kinds has been a chronic problem ever since exchange economies came into being.

Apple may have to join the ranks of Nike and other firms who have squirmed in the spotlight of exposure when maltreatment of workers making their products became public knowledge. A new and positive trend in the retail economy is the practice of buying according to conscience rather than just price or performance. With commodities such as clothing or coffee, sometimes the fact that one supplier can guarantee his product was made by genuinely contented workers in safe, comfortable factories gives him the only edge he needs over a similar product with no guarantee. However, Apple is not anywhere close to that situation. There is literally nothing like an iPod, or an iPad, at least for many consumers, and Apple wants to keep it that way. But part of the way they keep it that way is by squeezing the last drop of fast, agile production out of their (largely Chinese) suppliers, and so you get clouds of aluminum dust and an explosion here and there.

We may be seeing part of what can be regarded as a normal maturing process for Apple Inc. They began as the small, impudent upstart against IBM, and played the underdog role for years. Underdogs don’t have time to get all self-conscious and introspective—they’re too busy fighting. But the underdog label no longer fits Apple, and these latest revelations are a kind of loss of innocence. We will still probably buy Apple products as long as they are good ones, but I sure hope Apple slows down enough to do the right thing by its suppliers. It would be a shame if they don’t.

Sources: The New York Times article “In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad” appeared on Jan. 25, 2012 at