Monday, October 26, 2015

Kids and Smartphones: Does the Good Outweigh the Bad?

If you have children, do you regulate their use of smartphones?  In particular, what do you do about smartphones when you sit down for a meal together?  These questions came to mind when my wife told me about a little episode she'd witnessed in a restaurant one evening last week. 

The mother and father sat on either side of the daughter, who was perhaps 11.  Shortly after they got there, all three got out their smartphones, and each person escaped into a different electronic world.  The parents actually put down their phones and started a conversation after a while over the girl's head, but she held onto her phone till the food came, and after she was finished eating she picked it up again. 

In the lobby of the restaurant we'd passed a lady who was singing pop tunes and accompanying herself on the accordion.  (This is Canyon Lake, Texas, you understand, not New York City.)  Later in the evening, the singer picked up a hand puppet and went around entertaining guests who had brought along their children.  According to my wife, the puppet struck out with the smartphone girl, who looked up uncomprehendingly and then went back to her phone.  Evidently, live entertainment can't compete with electronic media, at least in that particular girl's world. 

When a new technology gets adopted as widely and rapidly as smartphones have, there is always at least a theoretical concern that some long-term effect that hasn't shown up in pilot marketing tests will pop up later to surprise and harm us.  The worst case like this from history I can think of was the thalidomide crisis of the 1960s. 

Thalidomide was a drug introduced in West Germany in 1957 and marketed as, among other things, a treatment for morning sickness in pregnant women.  While it appeared to help, it took several years for doctors to figure out that if a woman took it early enough in her pregnancy, thalidomide caused severe birth defects:  deformed or missing arms and legs, facial defects, and other disabling problems.  Although thalidomide is still available and prescribed for certain conditions such as cancer, the medical community knows to avoid any possibility of its use by women who could be pregnant. 

If something as bad as the thalidomide episode was going to happen with kids using smartphones, I think we'd probably know by now.  Nearly two billion such devices are out there, and a survey in Britain showed that more than half of eleven-year-olds use their own smartphone.  But not every technological problem can be studied with surveys and statistics.

What my wife witnessed in that restaurant was the clash of tradition and something else—"modernity" isn't the right word, nor is "technology."  One way to put it was expressed by a friend of mine, Bruce Hunt, who is a historian of technology.  We talk a lot about "cyberspace" without always knowing quite what we mean by it.  His definition of cyberspace is this:  "Cyberspace is where you are when you're on the phone."  At the time, he meant a traditional POTS phone (Plain Old Telephone Service), but saying that all three members of the family were in cyberspace before the food arrived is a pretty accurate statement.  So it was a clash between traditional space and activities, and whatever each individual happened to be doing in cyberspace.

By traditional, I mean nothing more than activities that have gone on more or less the same for a long time.  There have been restaurants and inns and families eating in them as long as there have been civilizations, I suppose.  And the same goes for live entertainers, going all the way back to cave men who put on masks and danced around the campfire.  Just because a thing has been done a long time doesn't mean it's necessarily good—it's just durable. 

When it comes to a family eating meals together, though, you can find studies that correlate all sorts of good things with families who eat together at least five nights a week.  Their kids are less likely to get involved in drug and alcohol use, they make better grades, and they feel closer to their parents.  I don't know whether the studies were fine-grained enough to notice how often smartphones were brought to the table, but it doesn't take a Ph. D. to tell that a family meal without smartphones is going to allow more opportunities for interpersonal interaction than one with them. 

The age at which a child should gain access to a smartphone is a question each parent has to decide.  Not having children myself, I have never had to make that decision, but I hear that it's a hard one to make.  Like driving, watching R-rated movies, and drinking alcohol, using smartphones is something that adults are free to do, and it's a judgment call on the part of parents as to when a child is mature enough to use one responsibly. 

But the little drama in the restaurant made me think that the family that brings their smartphones to the dinner table is missing something valuable that has no corporate-sponsored PR in its favor, no guaranteed payoff, and no particular immediate harm that results when it goes missing.  It's the chance to be with other people, in the time-honored sense of devoting one's embodied attention to the experience of the real, actual bodily presence of other human beings.  The very name "media" means "that which goes between," and anything between us can separate us as well as bring us together. 

So I'm not going to issue any blanket condemnations of smartphones at the dinner table. 
But I would ask parents to consider first how you use your smartphone and what kind of example you are setting for your children to follow.  Do you let it interrupt quality time with your spouse or children?  Or do you put it away at specific regular times, and devote your full attention to other members of your family?  Children have a powerful built-in instinct that says, "Whatever mommy or daddy does is okay," and if you tell your son to put away his smartphone at the dinner table and then whip yours out when it goes off, you've just wasted your breath.  The kids won't always be young, and you won't always be around to talk with them.  Do it while you have the chance.

Sources:  I referred to an article on the website PsychCentral by Amy Williams entitled, "How Do Smartphones Affect Childhood Psychology?" at, and a rather touching essay on the benefits of family meals by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic online edition for July 18, 2014 at, as well as the Wikipedia article on thalidomide.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Will ISIS Hack the U. S. Power Grid?

In a meeting of electric-power providers last week, U. S. law enforcement officials revealed that Islamic State operatives have tried to hack into parts of the American power grid, so far without success.  But the mere fact that they're trying has some grim implications.

One of the officials, Caitlin Durkovich, is assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.  She refused to provide specific details of the attacks, but an FBI official said so far that the attacks are characterized by "low capability." 

For some time now, it's been obvious that cyberwarfare may play an increasing role in future conflicts.  Perhaps the most significant successful attack up to now was mounted by a team of U. S. and Israeli experts in what came to be known as Stuxnet.  The attack was aimed at Iran's nuclear-material centrifuges and allegedly disabled many of them in 2010 before operators figured out what was going on. 

That attack was aimed at one specific facility, and the attackers had access to abundant information on the particular equipment involved.  Doing something similar to a significant part of the U. S. power grid would be a harder proposition for several reasons.

A Stuxnet-style attack on one generator, or even an entire plant, might temporarily  damage that plant and take it out of commission.  But the power grid is designed to deal with just such occurrences without major disruptions.  At any given time, a certain number of generators are offline for repairs or maintenance, and every so often a problem will cause one or more generators to trip out unexpectedly.  Unless the loss of capacity is very large or happens at a critical high-demand time (say on the hottest day of summer), the system absorbs the loss and reroutes power from other sources to make up the difference, often with no noticeable interruption to customers. 

So in order to produce a large-scale blackout that would do some good from a terrorism point of view, a different approach would be needed. 

The most vulnerable parts of the power grid from a hacking point of view are the network control systems themselves—the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) devices and communications systems that tell system operators (both human and electronic) what the status of the grid is, and open and close the big high-voltage switches that route the energy.  A simultaneous order to a lot of circuit breakers to open up all across a large grid would throw the whole system into chaos, tripping other automatic breakers everywhere and necessitating a total shutdown and resynchronization, which could take hours or days—even longer if widespread mechanical damage occurred, which is possible. 

But doing that sort of attack would be very hard.  I am no power-grid expert, but I do know that long before the Internet came along, power utilities constructed their own special-purpose communication networks that carried the switch-command instructions, often by means of microwave relays or dedicated cables.  Originally, these specialized networks were entirely independent of the Internet because there was no such thing yet, and so were perfectly secure from Internet-based hacking.  Utilities tend not to throw anything away that still works, so my suspicion is that a good bit of network-control data still gets carried on these physically isolated communications links.  For a set of hackers halfway around the world to get into those specialized communications systems would require either amazing hacking abilities, or inside information, or most likely both. 

This is not to say that it's impossible.  But the job is orders of magnitude harder than disabling one uniform set of machines in one location.  As reports on the power-grid hacking attempts pointed out, the U. S. grid is a hodge-podge of widely different equipment, systems, protocols, hardware, and software.  A hack that might take out a power plant in Hackensack would probably be useless on a plant in Houston.  So to mount a coordinated attack that would create a politically significant amount of trouble would be a monumental undertaking—so hard that evil guys with limited resources may decide that some other type of troublemaking would be a better use of their time.

Does that mean we can just sit back and enjoy the fact that the Islamic State hackers don't know what they're doing?  Not necessarily.  Hackers come in all flavors, and as the Internet has played an increasing role in the day-to-day operation of electric utilities, those same firms have had to deal with the accompanying hazards of malevolent cyberattacks from who knows where.  So the fact that Islamic State hackers are going after the power grid is not exactly a surprise.

While the recent revelations have led to some calls for increased government oversight of cybersecurity for the power grid, the industry so far seems to have done a fairly good job at policing itself.  A report in USA Today back in March of 2015 said that the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is the non-profit industry-sponsored security-standard enforcer, has slacked off on the number of penalties and fines it has assessed on its members in recent years.  But the president of NERC says this doesn't necessarily mean that his organization is getting lazy—it could just as well be that utilities are following the rules better.

Rules or no rules, the danger that foreign and domestic terrorist organizations could cause massive power blackouts in the U. S. is real.  And constant vigilance on the part of the utility operators is needed to prevent these attacks from getting anywhere.  Fortunately, the present structure of the grid makes it a particularly difficult target.  But that doesn't mean it couldn't ever happen.

Sources:  I referred to reports of the disclosures about cyberattacks on utility infrastructures carried by CNN on Oct. 15, 2015 at, and by the Washington Examiner at  USA Today carried an in-depth study of the issue by Steve Reilly on Mar. 24, 2015 at I blogged on Stuxnet on July 24, 2011 and July 2, 2012.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Can Technology Stop Mass Shootings?

The mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1 brought a violent end to the lives of nine victims (eight students and one professor), besides the death of the perpetrator, Christopher Harper-Mercer, at the hands of police called to the scene.  This tragedy has inspired a predictable chorus of editorials calling for something to be done about such things. 

Two voices heard on opposite sides of the political fence are E. J. Dionne, based at the Washington Post, and Charles Krauthammer, a familiar face on Fox TV.  In a recent column, Dionne decries the standard knee-jerk responses of his fellow liberals who call for gun control laws that they know won't pass Congress.  He rightly regards this as a futile gesture, especially now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the National Rifle Association's influence is strengthened thereby.  Dionne's idea is to focus on gunmakers, who sell almost half their output to governments of various forms (federal, state, and local) and who might start making safer guns if that segment of the market demanded them. 

Safer how?  Dionne mentions two technologies that might mitigate unlawful gun use:  smart guns that can be used only by their owner, and microstamping of guns and bullets.  Several gunmakers have marketed various versions of smart guns, which typically use some add-on such as a magnetic ring or RFID chip worn by the owner to allow use of the gun.  These things are not popular with the gun lobby, and a sea change in attitudes would have to happen for any one of the smart-gun technologies to become common.  Microstamping is a patented technique of engraving a tiny serial number on the firing pin of a gun, which is then stamped into the cartridge when the gun fires.  If the cartridge is recovered, it can be matched with the microstamped gun.  Although California passed a law requiring microstamping of semi-automatic guns, it specifically exempted law-enforcement weapons (there goes the government tie-in), and two gun manufacturers have quit selling semi-automatic weapons in that state, citing the microstamping requirement as a major reason. 

The main weakness of Dionne's technological fixes has nothing to do with the virtues or flaws of a given new technology.  As Charles Krauthammer pointed out in his column last week, even if every new gun sold was smart enough to shoot only at truly bad guys, there were some 350 million guns in the U. S. as of last year (more than one for every man, woman, and child), and the only effective gun law that would stand a chance of reducing mass shootings would have to round up the ones out there already.  Krauthammer cites Australia's compulsory buy-back program as an example of this, but for a number of reasons it would never work in the U. S.  To stop such a program here, all that gun proponents would need to do is to cite the Second Amendment, which the U. S. Supreme Court has interpreted as granting citizens the right to bear arms.

And that gets to the tradeoff involved in this situation.  Australia decided that the risk of gun-related crime was so great that they sacrificed the freedom of average citizens to bear arms, by and large.  In this country, the right of private citizens to own guns is valued more highly, and the result is that we have to run the risk of unstable individuals now and then getting hold of a gun and shooting lots of people.

Is that problem any worse now than it has been?  Every mass shooting is a unique tragedy, but if we look at them in the same light as other unlikely but spectacularly awful ways to die such as airplane crashes, the problem takes on a different look.  According to the Stanford Mass Shootings in America Database, a comprehensive but not exhaustive study of mass shootings in the U. S. since 1966, 1011 people have died in mass shootings in the last 49 years.  To put that into perspective, more than 1300 passengers have died in commercial airline crashes in the U. S. since only 1996, although many of those fatalities happened in the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Graphing the Stanford data versus time produces a curve that has no clear upward or downward trend—just noticeable spikes that don't seem to be clustering toward the recent past. 

Maybe it's coldhearted to view these things as statistics, but one way to view this is that as a society, we have decided to tolerate a certain risk of a small number of unstable people getting hold of a gun as the price we pay for the freedom of the vast majority of well-behaved, law-abiding gun owners to keep their firearms.  Krauthammer speculates as to how you could stop the isolated mass shooters, but most of them prior to their flame-outs never do anything illegal enough to warrant taking their guns away before they come out shooting.  What has emerged about Christopher Harper-Mercer's background has eerie resonances with that of another mass shooter, Adam Lanza, who walked into a schoolroom in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and killed 26 people after shooting his mother, and then killed himself on Dec. 12, 2012.  Both were loners with absent fathers whose mothers struggled to socialize their autistic-spectrum sons.  But if having minor autistic tendencies is made a crime, we'll have to lock up a lot of engineers.

These matters come close to home here at my university, just down the road from Austin where Charles Whitman inaugurated the modern era of mass shootings in 1966 from the famed University of Texas tower.  In its most recent session, the Texas legislature passed a law making it legal for qualified concealed-weapons owners to carry their firearms into classrooms and other buildings at public and private universities.  The idea seems to be that if a nut case suspects that somebody besides himself may have a gun in the room, he'll at least hesitate before he starts anything.  Even if he does, maybe dead-eye Annie there in the back row will take him out before he gets too far. 

Needless to say, I don't look forward to the Shootout at the Mitte Engineering Building taking place in my classroom.  Fortunately, you have to be 21 to get a concealed-carry permit, and so only a small minority of our students would qualify. 

We can count on oceanic news coverage of any mass shooting, but it's hard to keep a sense of perspective while the media rattles on.  Unless the great majority of gun owners in the U. S. decide it's just not a good idea to have a gun around, those 350 million weapons are not going to go away any time soon.  And anybody without a serious criminal record (and even some with one) can still get one of them.  Current technological fixes for the problem simply don't seem to have the political traction to get very far.  Maybe smart, unobtrusive metal detectors with RFID chips for people authorized to carry concealed weapons could work, but that would be a lot of expense for an unlikely problem.  In the meantime, I'm going to act like nobody in my classroom has a gun.  But all the same, I'm glad my podium is close to the exit.

Sources:  E. J. Dionne's column "Let's focus on gun makers and smart-gun technology" was carried by the Austin American-Statesman on Oct. 9, 2015.  Charles Krauthammer's "Massacre begets charade with confiscation a no-go" appeared in the same publication on Oct. 10.  The Stanford Mass Shootings in America Database is available to anyone (after a check-in procedure) at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on smart guns, microstamping, and airline fatality statistics. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

Engineering Exemplar: Smarter Every Day's Destin Sandlin

An exemplar is an excellent model of something.  Engineering has its exemplars—people who excel at their work so well that it's worthwhile to point them out as good examples.  The aerospace engineer Destin Sandlin is an exemplar in a corner of engineering we don't think much about:  explaining engineering and science concepts to the general public.  Believe it or not, some of the ethics codes of engineering societies call for their members to do this.  Members of the IEEE (which used to stand for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers before they changed it to just the initials) are committed "to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences." One engineer who is doing a lot in that direction right now is Destin Sandlin.

Mr. Sandlin has a graduate degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and works as a missile flight test engineer at the Redstone Arsenal.  Some time in the late 2000s, he posted a video on YouTube showing his friends how to light a bonfire with rockets.  They liked it so much that he started making more videos.  It's now a collection of videos he calls Smarter Every Day.  He's now up to No. 142, at least, and now has over two million subscribers and 24 videos that have received more than a million views each. 

What does he talk about?  All kinds of cool stuff involving technology, explained in a visually appealing way with well-produced graphics and a narration by Mr. Sandlin himself.  He is the opposite of the stereotypical inarticulate nerdy engineer, as you might expect from someone who won the University of Alabama's Outstanding Senior Award.  (Notice that's not Outstanding Engineering Major, but Outstanding Senior—period.)  I discovered his videos while searching for high-speed photography videos, and came upon one that dealt with a thing called a Prince Rupert's drop.  Go look at it to find out what it is—it has to do with dropping very hot glass into cold water.  I was impressed by his combination of clarity, technical correctness, and enthusiasm.  Plus which, he shows some really neat high-speed videos of how the thing works.

His videos aren't just all about technology—he gets into engineering ethics in a way too.  For example, one of his recent videos covers the three-in-a-row explosions of cargo-rocket launches that were intended to resupply the International Space Station.  Ever the optimist, his take on them is that if we were going to have some rockets blow up, this was the perfect time for it to happen, when the Space Station happens to have rather a surplus of food and before we start putting people on those rockets. 

Cameras that can take 100,000 frames per second aren't cheap, and I wondered how Mr. Sandlin pays for all the production expenses of his videos—green screens, high-quality graphics, and so on.  Well, several ways, it appears.  One is contributions—you can donate to his effort through a website called Patreon.  Another is advertising—some of the later videos have little ads at the end for various products (the one I saw boosted a book sold by Amazon).  And there's the revenue from the YouTube viewings.  He is up front about his hopes that Smarter Every Day will provide funds for his children's college education, and there's nothing wrong with that.  So he's an entrepreneur of a sort as well as an engineer, which is a good combination.

One thing that's fairly certain is that Mr. Sandlin hasn't gotten any money from the National Science Foundation.  If he had, they would have insisted that he have some kind of acknowledgment of the fact.  Over the years, I have been peripherally involved with NSF-sponsored efforts in the area of engineering education.  It turns out the kind of skills that enable one to raise or spend NSF education money are not always the kind of skills needed to appeal to a wide popular audience.  NSF would like both, of course, and every now and then, an NSF-sponsored project designed to explain or promote engineering to the general public actually gets a fair number of the general public to pay attention to it.  But successes like that are generally few and far between.

I would point out that Mr. Sandlin has no degree in education—or mass communication, for that matter.  All he had to start with is enthusiasm and a motivation to pay for his kids' college expenses.  And he's come up with something that presents engineering in a positive light to millions of people.  I'm not saying that government support for engineering education efforts directed at the general public is wasted, but Mr. Sandlin's work proves that it's not necessary, and the number of failed projects in that area proves that it's not sufficient, either.

One personal example of how not to do it will suffice here.  Years ago I made a misguided attempt to develop a kind of computer-based learning module for non-engineers.  I took a lot of NSF money and spent a whole summer at Cornell University with a grad student, learning how to use a very early version of development software for that kind of thing.  The project was used in an experimental course once, and that was that.  Clearly, it was not my forte.

Mr. Sandlin makes it look easy, but he says on his website that each video takes upwards of 100 hours to produce, and I believe him.  What he's doing deserves the support and encouragement of the engineering community, and so I encourage my readers to take a look at  If you like what you see, let Mr. Sandlin know.  He's doing a good thing for engineering and the world.

Sources:  I encountered Mr. Sandlin's work in the form of his video on Prince Rupert's drops at  His video on the cargo-rocket explosions is at  His main website is, and I also referred to the Wikipedia article "Destin Sandlin."