Monday, June 27, 2016

Take the Moral Limits Test


Every once in a great while I raise a philosophical issue in this space.  Most people who have tried teaching engineering ethics know that a little philosophy goes a long way, at least with undergraduates.  The subject has a reputation of being dry, abstract, and far removed from everyday considerations.  And another count against it is that it never seems to go anywhere—philosophers today argue about some of the same things that Plato and his students argued about in the garden called the Akademeia near Athens around 400 B. C. 

Nevertheless, I find that philosophers can clarify and put names to things that most of us deal with a lot, but have trouble thinking clearly about.  One such philosopher I came across lately is George Parkin Grant, and a question he asks in his book Philosophy in the Mass Age is one I'd like to raise here.

Writing in 1960, Grant was worried about many of the same things that bother us today:  whether the products and effects of our technological smarts will carry us over the brink to extinction, for example.  Back then, the big concern was nuclear war between the old USSR and the United States.  Nowadays it's climate change, but while the subject of the fear is different, the anxieties are similar. 

Grant saw two worldviews or states of mind that were locked in a complex struggle—a struggle that continues today.  He stated the terms of the struggle succinctly in this way:  "To put this issue simply:  are we truly and finally responsible for shaping what happens in the world, or do we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible, so that the purpose of our lives is to discover and serve that order?" 

If we are truly in charge—if there's no higher authority or source of guidance than our own wits and ability to work together—then you are likely to take a different view of the world and a different approach to life, than if you think otherwise.  Later in the book, he poses a question, which I'm calling the Moral Limits Test.  It's not a question to be answered lightly or quickly.  But your answer to it could tell you something about yourself and where you stand on the issue that Grant raised in the quotation above.

The question is this: "Is there anything that we should never under any circumstances do to another human being?"

Now we can get all tangled up in details—"Define 'human being,'" you might say, or "What if the circumstances are unlikely and extreme, such as whether torturing one person will save the lives of millions?"  Let's not get too technical here.  The intent of the question is to probe your own beliefs about one's ultimate responsibilities to other humans, and whether there is some rock-bottom limit below which it is always forbidden to go.  Not knowing what you'll answer, I'll take each of the two possible responses in turn.

Let's say you answer in the negative.  No, you say, I can't think of anything I would absolutely rule out.  You may argue that at any rate, they've all been tried over the bloody course of history, and you would not be far from the truth there.  From genocides authorized by religious prophecies to the Nazi death camps, man's inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds.  That doesn't make these acts right, of course, but despite all the terrible things that have been done, the species has survived.  Other things being equal, you wouldn't choose to torment two-year-olds with hot branding irons, but who knows what urgent technical or societal need will come up in the future? 

I realize that the question is a little bit like trying to find out how many bigots there are in a population by sending out a survey that asks, "Are you a bigot?  Answer yes or no."  Even if you are, you don't want to admit it.  So there's a strong social pressure to agree that yes, there must be something that we shouldn't do to other people, even though you may not be able to think of anything at the moment.  The same bloody history I referred to a minute ago tells me, though, that a lot of people have answered that question to themselves in the negative, at least judging by their heinous behavior.

Now let's say you honestly answered yes—there are things we should never under any circumstances do to someone else.  You may even be able to think of a few—running death camps, or keeping slaves, or performing abortions, for example.  Whatever your example, or even if you can't think of one, by saying "yes" to that question, Grant believes you have admitted that, in his words, "we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible."  And in his view, this means that God has entered the picture:  ". . . the idea of limit is unavoidably the idea of God," as he puts it.

This is a problem for modern people, he admits, because the whole thrust of civilization since the scientific and industrial revolutions has been to pretend there are no limits, and to use nature as raw material for making the Earth into a place that satisfies our desires.  One of the paradoxes of modern life is that in trying to make ourselves happy, we often cause tremendous distress and harm to others, which is really the problem of evil.  And we're not going to solve that one in a thousand-word blog. 

But the point I would like to leave you with is this:  if you really think there are some things that are "categorically wrong"—forbidden to do under any circumstances—then Grant thinks you have admitted that there is something, or Someone, higher than just humankind.  And that limitation, that absolute of the moral realm, did not come from us, but from outside. 

Working out the implications of that thought will be left as an exercise for the reader, as annoying textbooks sometimes say.  But the implications are not trivial, and if you are honest with yourself, you may find out something about yourself and your beliefs that you had not suspected.

Sources:  George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) was a Canadian philosopher, who according to the Wikipedia article on him was heavily influenced in his early work by G. W. F. Hegel.  (We don't talk about Hegel in this blog, as I don't want to lose the readers I have.)  The quotations from his book Philosophy in the Mass Age (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1960) are taken from p. 51 ("To put this issue. . ."), p. 91 ("Is there anything. . ."), and p. 93 (". . . the idea of limit . . .").  I learned about Grant from comments by Ken Myers, who produces the admirable Mars Hill Audio Journal, a periodic interview series on Christianity and culture (www.marshillaudio.org).

Monday, June 20, 2016

Injecting Some Sense Into Fracking Regulation


The July issue of Scientific American carried the best summary of the fracking-earthquake controversy I have seen so far.  "Drilling For Earthquakes" by Anna Kuchment reviews the fracking (hydraulic fracturing), the associated water injection, the earthquakes, the science, and government reactions to the problem.  In particular, the article shows the very different approaches the states of Texas and Oklahoma have taken to the problem.  And I regret to say it doesn't make my native state of Texas look good by comparison.  But first, the basics.

As I wrote in this space in 2013, water-injection wells to dispose of the brackish water that comes up sometimes along with oil and gas are nothing new.  But the combination of fracking to extract fossil fuels from previously inaccessible formations, horizontal drilling to gain wider access to those formations, and the boom of widespread deployment of these techniques that has gone on in the last six or eight years, have led to a huge increase in the volume of water injected back deep underground.  During 2014, in Texas a gallon of water was injected back into the ground for every 100 or so cubic feet of shale gas extracted.  That may not sound like much, but Texas produced about 4 trillion (4,000,000,000,000) cubic feet of shale gas that year.  Leave off two zeroes and that's how many gallons of water were injected back into the ground.  And that ratio probably holds true more or less for the rest of the country as well.

Wastewater injection from fracking doesn't always cause earthquakes.  North Dakota has had a lot of fracking and wastewater injection too, but hardly any earthquakes.  On the other hand, Oklahoma, a place that was hardly famous for earthquakes before 2005, had 581 temblors of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2014.  Its most severe one recently happened in November 2011, when a 5.6-magnitude quake wrecked more than a dozen houses and injured a couple of people.  Less severe but just as widespread quakes have been happening in North Texas, where the Barnett Shale has been exploited for natural gas in a big way, and injection wells are operating there too.

Because of the huge volumes of wastewater to deal with, oil and gas producers don't have too many options that won't make their operations too expensive to carry out.  Treating the water to extract the salt and other minerals would mean distilling it, a hugely costly process that would turn them all into water-purification plants with an unprofitable sideline of making oil and gas as a byproduct.  So that's not an option.  Trucking it to a place where injecting it wouldn't cause earthquakes would be expensive, even if we knew of a nearby place where injecting it wouldn't cause earthquakes.  And just throwing it out on the ground, which used to be a common practice in the bad old days before 1950 or so, would cause huge amounts of waterway pollution because of the salts, radioactivity, and other nasty stuff that comes up with the water.  So going to the expense of drilling wells typically much deeper than the producing ones and injecting the wastewater downhole at tremendous pressures is the only thing that producers can typically do with it.

The trouble is, rocks are porous—that's the only way you can inject water into them in the first place.  So that high-pressure water starts to move, and seeps toward faults, which are just big cracks between intact blocks of rock.  Some faults are under shear stress.  To envision shear stress, think of holding two old-fashioned chalkboard erasers together face to face and rubbing them back and forth across each other.  It's shear stress you put on them that makes them slide.  If you mash the erasers together perpendicularly, putting them under compressive stress, it's a lot harder to get them to move with shear stress.  So a fault that is under shear stress won't slip and cause an earthquake as long as the compressive stress is great enough.

Then along comes your water injection at high pressure.  It seeps through the pores to the cracks and provides an opposing pressure that can counteract the compressive stress that's keeping the fault from slipping.  We're not talking lubrication here, but large opposing mechanical forces.  I'm sure the technical details involve stress tensors and the whole nine yards of solid mechanics, but the basic picture is simple.  When the fluid pressure exceeds a certain threshold, that fault is going to let go, and you've got an earthquake.  People have even done experiments in the field to figure out exactly how much stress makes the faults slip, and there is a definite threshold, just as theory predicts.

Both from mechanical analyses and statistical studies, as well as abundant seismological data correlating particular regions of earthquake activity with particular injection-well activity, by now it is clear to all but the most biased observers that, generally speaking, the injection-well activity has caused the increase in earthquakes in both Texas and Oklahoma.  The U. S. Geological Survey, which has been issuing long-range earthquake predictions by region for some time now for the convenience of structural engineers, insurance companies, and other interested parties, has had to revise its forecasts for Oklahoma and Texas sharply upward in the last few years.  A contour map of earthquake likelihood for Oklahoma now looks like an archery target with Oklahoma City in the bullseye.  And the scientific literature abounds with studies showing details of the correlation.

Oklahoma has a long tradition of assertive state government, dating back to the 1930s when it passed laws regulating things like the price of ice.  And they have now continued that tradition by shutting down individual wells since 2015 and regulating the volume of wastewater that can be injected.  On the other hand, the Texas agency in charge of oil and gas regulation (for historical reasons, it's called the Texas Railroad Commission) still has not been able to bring itself to admit that any earthquakes have been triggered by water injection associated with fossil-fuel production.  But recently the Commission asserted its right to shut down wells if it wants to.  So far, though, it hasn't wanted to.

To some degree, all this is water under the bridge, or well, as the case may be.  Oil and gas markets are glutted right now, and the consensus is that the big fracking boom is over, at least in Texas and Oklahoma.  But all that injected water is still down there, slowly diffusing, and some geologists estimate that the effects of water injection on earthquakes can last as long as twenty years.  So in that sense, we may be dealing with the aftershocks of the fracking boom for some time.

Sources:  Anna Kuchment's article "Drilling for Earthquakes" appeared in the July 2016 print issue of Scientific American, pp. 46-53.  I also referred to a U. S. Department of Energy table of shale-gas production available at https://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/ng_prod_shalegas_s1_a.htm.  I blogged on earthquakes and fracking most recently on Dec. 30, 2013.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tesla's Growing Pains: The Wheel-Falling-Off Incident


First, the known facts.  On Sunday, Apr. 24 of this year, Pete Cordaro had driven his Tesla Model S about 73,000 miles, making it one of the higher-mileage electric vehicles on the road.  The Model S is an all-electric vehicle introduced by Tesla in 2012, and currently retails for about $70,000.  While driving slowly on a back road in Pennsylvania looking for mushrooms, he hit a pothole and heard a "snap."  The left front hub had separated from the control arm of the suspension system.  In simple turns, the front driver's side wheel fell off.

According to a New York Times report of the story, Tesla at first refused to pay for the repair, saying it wasn't covered under warranty.  When Mr. Cordaro complained, they picked up some of the tab and asked him to sign an agreement that included nondisclosure language.  Exactly what he wasn't supposed to disclose is not clear.  The Times report said the language, strictly interpreted, would have prevented Mr. Cordaro from informing the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the incident.  But Tesla denies this, saying the only reason for what they called a "goodwill agreement" was simply to keep their beyond-the-call-of-duty good deed from resulting in legal action against them.  One can imagine lots of other customers with out-of-warranty complaints suing Tesla and saying, "Hey, you did it for him, now you gotta do it for me." 

The Times article also reports that there have been numerous other complaints about Tesla suspension problems on the NHSTA website.  But the pro-electric-vehicle website Inside EVs reports that most of these complaints are suspiciously similar, and may have been posted by one disgruntled Tesla owner who has adopted multiple anonymous names.  The Inside EVs report concludes that the main problem here is not defective suspensions, but an amateurish publicity department at Tesla which has allowed a small, isolated incident to get more public exposure and attention than perhaps it deserved.

Fortunately, no one was hurt when Mr. Cordaro's wheel came loose.  If he has really been driving his Tesla for 73,000 miles on icy, salty Pennsylvania roads, his car has probably experienced more rust than you are likely to encounter anywhere in California, the birthplace of the vehicle.  And the fact that this is probably the only such incident is only one aspect of a truly impressive thing that Tesla is trying to do:  become a major player in the U. S. automotive industry beginning from scratch.  It's understandable that they will make a few fumbles on the way.

From literally dozens of U. S. automakers that tried to make a go of it in the early days of the automotive industry, the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—were the only ones who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and continued to flourish.  The challenges of breaking into an industry whose foundations go back more than a century is enormous.  It's made harder by the fact that many states have laws that prevent automakers from selling directly to consumers, which is what Tesla wants to do.

Why is that?  The roots of the problem lie in the way early automakers set up their distribution systems.  Rather than pay for the expense of sales facilities in thousands of cities and towns, the Big Three sold franchises to private investors who then owned the car-sales franchise for that make in their towns.  Initially, the franchise deals were stacked in favor of the auto manufacturers.  During slow times, the franchisees were committed to buy a fixed quota of cars from the makers, even if they couldn't sell any. 

In reaction, the franchise owners joined together and got state laws passed that protected their franchise status.  In particular, these laws made sure cars were sold only through locally-owned franchises, not directly by auto makers, who would otherwise be competing with their franchisees.

Like the similarly-arranged Coca-Cola franchises, these arrangements have enriched franchise owners, sometimes for generation after generation dating back to the 1930s.  But Tesla, the new kid on the block, doesn't want to do business that way.  Franchises add a middleman that Tesla wants to bypass.  And Tesla argues that because electric vehicles represent a threat to gasoline-powered vehicles, current car-franchise owners would have a conflict of interest in selling both kinds of cars.

Despite all these historical handicaps, Tesla is now legitimately regarded as a major automaker, having sold its 100,000th vehicle late last year.  On a recent trip to the East Coast, I encountered a Tesla charging station outside a motel in Lexington, Virginia, along I-81.  It was a set of half a dozen or so vaguely gas-pump-shaped things, but instead of a hose there was a cable.  I had the temerity to unhook one from its stand and look into the end.  There were two coaxial-looking connectors about an inch apart, and some smaller connectors at the bottom.  According to a Wikipedia article on the "supercharging" stations, they can supply up to 135 kW during a 15 to 30-minute charge cycle that will give a Model S another 180 miles or so of charge.  If you assume those cables won't handle more than 30 amps or so, they must run a voltage of several kV and down-convert it in the car to the couple of hundred volts or so that the main battery takes.  If I am wrong on these estimates, I will be glad to be corrected by someone who knows more about the charging stations than I do.

Anyway, the challenge of designing and making a new type of car from scratch, and not only doing that but building the infrastructure to sell, service, and supply charging for them, is tremendous.  Tesla had federal government help to the tune of a $400 million loan early on, which is not something every company gets, but it's reportedly been paid back and the company appears to be doing well now on its own.

All the same, I suspect Tesla's mechanical engineers will be investing in some rapid-corrosion testing equipment to see what driving thousands of miles on salt-covered roads does to their latest designs.  Even one wheel falling off is too many, and I hope Mr. Cordaro's wheel incident will be the last one for Tesla for a long time. 

Sources:  The New York Times article on the wheel incident appeared on June 10 online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/business/tesla-motors-model-s-suspension.html.  The Inside EV article on the same incident is at http://insideevs.com/tesla-issues-response-to-model-s-suspension-failure-allegations/, and cites Mr. Cordaro's original posting of the incident at
I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Tesla Model S, and Tesla's discussion of Supercharger stations at https://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Rights and Wrongs of the Human Genome Project—Write


The highly prestigious journal Science carried an unusual article on June 2.  Most scientific papers are about new discoveries—we figured out this theory or we measured thus-and-so in that experiment.  Well, this paper was neither of those things.  In "The Human Genome Project—Write," the twenty-five co-authors announced their intention to synthesize a human genome from scratch.  In layman's terms, they are saying that they are going to design a human being. 
The way they plan to do this is through an organization calling itself the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology.  They plan to raise $100 million this year pretty much any way they can:  donations, private sources, government funding, you name it.  So far, one of the biggest contributors reportedly is Autodesk, maker of Autocad, the computer-aided design software familiar to mechanical engineers, architects, and lots of other people who make things.  Autodesk has chipped in a quarter million, and so the researchers are at least 0.25% closer to their goal.

I am dwelling on the mechanics of the plan because there is a question here of whether we are looking at science pure and simple, or a scheme that would look more at home in the hands of venture capitalists.  Now there's nothing wrong with doing science (pure or impure), and there's nothing wrong with making money, either.  But one can at least question whether a proposal that looks more like a business plan in some respects deserves to appear in the pages of a journal that usually carries things like Nobel-Prize-winning research that's already been done. 

What exactly are the authors proposing to do?  Well, you may remember the original Human Genome Project.  Its goal was to read a human genome, all 3-some-billion DNA base pairs of the chromosomes of a human being.  In computer-science terms, every base pair encodes one bit of information, and so your chromosomal description can in principle be contained in three billion bits or so, which can easily fit on a flash drive these days.  The Human Genome Project was finished around 2003 at a cost of about $3 billion, according to Wikipedia—about a dollar a base pair, it turns out. 

Reading the genome is one thing, but writing it and trying to use it is quite another.  If you go and synthesize this human genome, how will you know if it works unless you try to make a baby?  And that gets us into really deep ethical waters.

To their credit, the authors of the Science paper address this problem early on, referring to it as "ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI)."  They call for a lot of discussion of ELSI, and maybe devoting a fixed fraction of their funds to looking at the issues, but they don't say how they would test their creation.  Short of implanting the DNA in a human egg cell and seeing if it will develop normally into a baby, I'm not sure how they would test it. 

They mention stem-cell research as a model of how such tests would be done.  Stem-cell research has also been highly controversial ethically, because it can potentially lead to human cloning.  I am not a biologist, but the question seems to be that once you have a fertilized egg cell, how far do you let it develop?  If you just let it divide a few times and then stop it (=kill it, according to some views), you've shown that it can go that far, but you haven't learned much about its normality or whether all the details you put into the genome will show up in the final product, so to speak.  If you go all the way and try implanting it into a womb, you will learn a lot more about how your product performs, but at the risk of causing the woman to give birth to a baby with no parents—just a computer program.  At the same time, the risk of deformities or other abnormalities in the baby thus created will be very great.  So we have many of the moral issues associated with stem-cell research coming up with this project as well, only more so.

I intentionally used the word "product" to refer to the human who would be created through this process, because that is what he or she would be:  a completely engineered product from the start.  We have already gone pretty far down the unsavory road of regarding children as products, with prenatal genetic testing and selective abortions being used in case of a wide variety of problems ranging from Down's syndrome down to the simple issue of the wrong sex.  There are still countries where a fetus can be, and often is, aborted if the parents wanted a boy and it turns out to be a girl.  A lot of people think this is wrong, but it happens.

I salute the authors of the Human Genome Project—Write paper for recognizing that their proposal carries extremely serious ethical implications.  But I think they are trying to have their scientific cake and eat the profits too.  Although some reports about the organization formed to carry out the project say it is a non-profit, that term appears nowhere in the original paper, although the phrase "patent pools" does.  Patent pools are useful when a small number of powerful companies wish to engineer a functional near-monopoly in a new field.  It's not clear whether early investors in this project will be able to stake a claim on the intellectual property it generates, but my guess is they will.  That doesn't look like non-profit to me.

If this project leads to non-controversial things like being able to grow a replacement kidney for someone whose original kidneys have failed, that would be great.  I have a relative right now who has been needing a kidney transplant for several years, and he wishes he could go down to the kidney store and order a custom-made replacement model for his old kidneys.  If this project makes that possible without doing some reverse-Frankenstein-like thing such as first growing a human clone and then killing it for its kidneys, I hope it succeeds.  But the temptation to use new technical abilities for unethical things is always there, and if the ends require unethical means, I say: don't even go there.

Sources:  The New York Times carried a thorough report on the Human Genome Project—Write on June 2 at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/science/human-genome-project-write-synthetic-dna.html.  The paper itself, published in Science the same day, can be accessed at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2016/06/03/science.aaf6850.  I also referred to a NYULangone press release at http://nyulangone.org/press-releases/genome-project-write-to-launch-in-2016 and the Wikipedia articles on non-coding DNA and the Human Genome Project (the original "read" project).

Monday, May 30, 2016

Too Much Bang For the Buck: Exploding E-Cigarettes


Last June, a man named Hamid Sadeghy was installing a car windshield in Austin, Texas when he felt a vibration in his pocket.  Sadeghy, who owns his own auto-glass company, is a responsible person who had been trying to cut back on his cigarette habit for the previous month or so by using electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigs or vapes).  Suddenly, in Sadeghy's words "It was like a firecracker.  It made the same exact noise.  A hissing sound and then burning sensation."  An e-cigarette in his pants pocket had exploded.  He suffered severe burns on his thigh which caused him to have difficulty walking, and was not able to return to work for three weeks following the accident. 

Sadeghy is one of dozens if not hundreds of people who have been affected by e-cigarette explosions.  Ironically, many people use e-cigarettes for the same reason Sadeghy did:  as a less harmful alternative to conventional smoking.  Although the jury is still out on the health hazards of e-cigarettes, there may be something to this idea.  But it changes the picture if every time you light up you're taking a chance that what you're smoking will turn into a pipe bomb.

The phenomenon of e-cigarettes showed up in the U. S. around 2007, and a 2015 poll showed that about 10% of U. S. adults now use the product at least occasionally. Vape shops have sprung up in many places, and most convenience stores carry them.  (Interestingly, the major tobacco companies dominate the convenience-store market channel.)  So if even a few hundred people have had their e-cigarette blow up on them, it is still a very rare occurrence, on the order of one incident per year for every 10,000 to 100,000 users.

Still, the tip of the injury iceberg of e-cigarettes is pretty grim, not to mention the property damage caused by fires.  A recent article on Buzzfeed shows graphic photos of Joseph Cavins, whose exploding e-cigarette destroyed one eye, and Thomas Boes, who lost three teeth in a disfiguring explosion from the same cause.  It's not clear whether such highly publicized stories are responsible for a recent slowdown in the growth of the e-cigarette market, but it's certainly possible.  It's well known that a few really exotic and gruesome accidents can cause more popular fear than a much larger number of less chilling mishaps.  This is why some people will get in a car without thinking but refuse to fly under any circumstances, even though the risk of accidents per mile traveled are much greater in automobiles.

A federal agency called the U. S. Fire Administration (USFA) did a study in 2014 of accidents and fires caused by e-cigarettes, and found that about four out of five happened during charging.  Most of the units use a universal-type USB connector to charge the lithium-ion battery that provides the power to heat the vaporizing element.  Unfortunately, this connector will fit pretty much any USB outlet, including power sources that were not designed to charge the particular battery that the e-cigarette uses.  The USFA thinks that most of the fires happened when the user tried to charge their unit with a power source not designed for it.

Lithium-ion batteries are nasty chemically, even when they are not enclosed in a cylindrical metal structure that unintentionally forms a pipe bomb.  The electrolyte is flammable.  If such a battery is charged too fast, it overheats, the liquid electrolyte vaporizes and breaches the battery case, and the thing catches fire.  The fire raises the pressure inside the metal tube of the e-cigarette, and here's where the pipe-bomb analogy comes in.  Small tubes can contain much higher pressures than other shapes, and so the tube doesn't give out on the sides.  Instead, the end cap or caps blow off, but only after the pressure has built up to an extremely high level.  When a cap lets go, the flaming electrolyte shoots it off with the force of a projectile and sprays itself all over whatever is nearby.  If the unit's being charged, that may be only things like flammable paper or wood. 

But in the fairly rare cases when the battery fails while in use, this sequence of dire events can go off in your face, with tragic and disfiguring results.  Properly designed and manufactured lithium-ion batteries don't explode spontaneously as they are charged or discharged, but the technology is being pushed pretty hard even when an e-cigarette operates normally.  A current of an amp or more is needed to heat the vaporizing element, and some counterfeit or shoddily made batteries can't handle that reliably and end up with an internal short due to overheating.  The result is pretty much the same as with overcharging:  electrolyte vaporizing and an explosion.

The Buzzfeed report says that the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to regulate e-cigarettes, bringing them under the same regulatory umbrella as conventional tobacco products.  Their plan is to require sellers to apply for authorization to sell the units, with approval hinging on safety features such as overcharging protection circuitry.  Of course, this would make the units cost more, but the present situation that makes it easy to connect an e-cigarette to the wrong charger is clearly a bad one.

Fire has a way of showing up in the early stages of many electrical products.  For a few years I worked at a division of Motorola which made two-way radios for first responders, and learned something about the history of the company, which goes back to the early days of radios installed in automobiles around 1930.  Back then it seems that the company rushed some auto radios into production that were not sufficiently safety-tested, and the resulting burned-up cars nearly killed Motorola.  Fortunately, they figured out what was wrong and fixed it, and car radios became one of the company's mainstays for many years.

The vaping industry needs to clean up its safety act by changing the charging method so consumers can't accidentally make little time bombs by plugging an e-cigarette into the wrong charger.  This will require coordination among the dozens of largely Chinese e-cigarette makers that up to now are probably engaged in cut-throat competition, and may not happen unless the FDA imposes the requirement on them.  So it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard.  In the meantime, if you happen to be a vape-er (?), be sure to use only the charger that came with the unit.  And it might not be a bad idea to wear safety glasses while you smoke.

Sources:  I thank my wife for pointing out to me the article on Buzzfeed from which I learned of this problem, posted on May 26, 2016 at https://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/burned?utm_term=.tbvvL7kEL#.mr0E63qy6.  I also referred to a vaping website called IEC where an (admittedly unscientific) survey of thirty e-cigarette accidents is reported at http://info-electronic-cigarette.com/e-cigarette-explosions-an-in-depth-investigation/.  This site refers to the USFA study, which is available at https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/electronic_cigarettes.pdf.  Mr. Sadegh's story was reported by Fox News on June 30, 2015 at http://www.fox7austin.com/news/4664501-story, and the statistic that about 10% of U. S. adults use e-cigarettes is from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-ecigarette-poll-analysis-idUSKBN0OQ0CA20150610.

Monday, May 23, 2016

EgyptAir Flight 804: Clues to a Tragedy


Early last Thursday morning, May 19, EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew members, went down in the Mediterranean on its way from France's Charles De Gaulle International Airport to Cairo.  The plane apparently broke up in the air and there are no survivors.  Search parties have begun to recover pieces of the wreckage, and data transmitted from the plane suggests that a bomb might have caused the crash.  But a definitive conclusion about the cause will have to await the recovery of the flight data recorders, if they can be found.

Generally speaking, commercial aviation safety has been a spectacular success story.  If you drive to the airport, the risky part of your journey is over once you park the car.  But determined terrorists can evade security measures to bring a plane down, and no amount of design improvements can make a modern airliner 100% secure against attacks.  In the case of Flight 804, we are fortunate to have information transmitted by the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that has provided material for early speculation about the cause of the crash.

Within a day, a number of sources provided news media with ACARS data transmitted for a period of about two minutes around the time of the crash.  Two indicators associated with windows on the right side of the cockpit and several smoke alarms went off.  An aviation expert cited in The Telegraph (UK) speculated that a bomb in or near the right side of the cockpit could have blown out a window, and the resulting cabin depressurization at cruising altitude would have caused condensation fog that can set off smoke alarms.  As the plane broke up, the ACARS system could have kept working, which explains the length of time between the initial transmission and when communication was lost.

ACARS has been helpful in investigating other crashes, such as the Malaysian Air Flight 370 that went down over the Indian Ocean on Mar. 8, 2014.  Although numerous pieces of that plane have been recovered in widely separated locations, the underwater search for the main body of the aircraft continues to this day. 

The part of the Mediterranean over which EgyptAir Flight 804 went down includes some of its deepest waters, over 3000 meters (more than a mile) deep.  So it will be a challenge to find the flight data recorders, especially if the search takes longer than 30 days, which is about as long as the recorder underwater locator beacons operate. 

The continuing mystery of the Malaysian Air Flight 370 crash led to calls for live streaming of flight-recorder data in addition to hard-copy logging on the plane, and in the ACARS data that was recovered for the EgyptAir flight, we see that even in the absence of regulations requiring such streaming, airlines have begun to take advantage of digital communications channels to transmit data that can be helpful both for maintenance and in case of a crash.  Other improvements that could be made to flight-recorder technology include automatic ejection and flotation, as is already done for recorders on military aircraft.  Instead of sinking with the plane, military flight recorders are ejected during the crash and automatically deploy flotation devices which makes them much easier to locate on the water's surface.  Since national governments usually bear the burden of paying for underwater searches, you would think that they would see the logic in offering to reimburse airlines for the additional expense of military-style flight recorders.  But logic isn't the only consideration in international politics.

If the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorders are recovered, the question of whether the crash was deliberate will probably resolve itself pretty quickly.  If it was indeed a deliberate act, the question then becomes one of criminal investigation, and the security at De Gaulle International Airport will come under scrutiny.  As long as airliners are flown by human beings, the trustworthiness of the pilots is an essential link in the security chain.  Assuming the pilots were not themselves part of a conspiracy, that leaves the possibility that someone planted a bomb somewhere in the cockpit.  While cockpits are now typically sealed off from the rest of the plane during flight, it's possible that maintenance workers or others can get into them while a plane is on the ground.  The Telegraph reported that the short stopover in France may not have allowed security personnel enough time to give the plane a thorough going-over before it took off for Cairo.

Whatever the cause of the crash turns out to be, we will learn something from it.  If it was mechanical failure, which seems unlikely but is still possible, it may affect all A320 Airbuses out there, but if there is such a problem it hasn't shown up more than once, apparently.  If, as seems more likely, there was a deliberate act of sabotage, the technique used by the saboteurs will have to be guarded against in the future. 

Either way, sixty-six lives have been lost in what was in all probability an avoidable tragedy.  Most of the time, the vastly complex systems of design engineering, maintenance, operations, and security for air travel work essentially perfectly, and when we get on a plane we don't usually give much thought to the question of whether we'll be getting off  under our own power or not.  But the price of such liberty is eternal vigilance, and I hope the lessons eventually learned from this tragedy make future ones even less likely.

Sources:  I referred to reports from CNN.com at http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/21/middleeast/egyptair-flight-804-main/ and The Telegraph (UK) at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/21/egyptair-crash---smoke-detected-inside-the-aircraft-cabin-as-sea/, as well as the Wikipedia articles on Aircraft Communications and Addressing System, flight recorders, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Monday, May 16, 2016

ATF Says West Explosion Deliberately Set


In an announcement last Wednesday, Robert Elder, Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, announced his agency's finding that the explosion of Apr. 17, 2013 of a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas was a "criminal act."  The agency has offered a $50,000 reward to anyone having information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.  No other details of the investigation's findings were released, but ATF says it has done over 400 interviews leading up to their determination that somebody deliberately set the fire that led to the explosion.

This bit of news raises more questions than it answers, not all of them technical ones.  But we can ask some technical ones for starters.

The explosion itself was so violent that it showed up on seismometers hundreds of miles away, left a crater over 90 feet (27 meters) wide, and scattered debris and other evidence for miles around, besides killing 15 people and injuring about 160.  How anybody could find enough evidence to conclude it was a deliberate act of arson is a good question.  But the ATF people are apparently well experienced and equipped to do that.  Unless and until their evidence comes out in a criminal trial, it's not possible to comment on the quality or quantity of their research and investigations.  But their findings are consistent with the conclusions of the U. S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board, which released its final report on the explosion in January of this year.  In it, the Board stated that one possible cause of the fire was that it was intentionally set, although there were other possibilities as well.

If the West explosion turns out to be deliberately set, that does not reduce the need for fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate more safely.  (Ammonium nitrate was the fertilizer material that detonated at West and caused so much damage.)  A representative of the Texas Ag Industries Association made the news in April of 2015 by saying that until a definite cause for the explosion could be identified, there was no need to issue new regulations for the storage of ammonium nitrate.  One hopes that now the ATF has apparently determined a definite cause, the Texas Ag Industries Association will reconsider its stance, even if it is nothing more than increasing security around existing fertilizer plants.

To those who lost loved ones or were injured or lost property in the explosion, the news that the fire was intentional can only cause more grief.  We can only speculate about the motives of the perpetrator, although an ATF spokesman has ruled out terrorism as a motive.  If the arsonist knew that the ammonium nitrate stored at the plant was likely to explode, the culpability in the case is compounded, but in any case, I hope that if the culprit is still around to be found, that justice can be served.  I say that in the unlikely event that the person who set the fire was also a first responder who was killed in the explosion.

Such a situation is not unheard of, as the case of John Leonard Orr shows.  Orr was a fire captain and arson investigator in Glendale, California in the 1980s.  Following a series of suspicious fires, in 1991 a fingerprint recovered from one of the fires was found to match Orr's, and he was tried and convicted on three counts of arson.  Partly because two children died in one of the fires Orr allegedly set, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I also hope that the ATF's body of evidence will withstand scrutiny in a court of law.  With a special Maryland fire-investigation lab, the ATF is probably the cream of the fire-investigator crop in the U. S.  But not all fire investigations are equal, and there have been cases where people have been convicted of arson with evidence that was later shown to be shoddy and insubstantial, as a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann called "Trial By Fire" described.  In that case, a man named Todd Willingham was convicted of arson in a Corsicana, Texas fire that claimed the lives of his three children.  After he was executed the arson evidence was re-examined by experts, one of whom said that the original investigation was more "characteristic of mystics or psychics" than of modern scientific methods. 

After all the time and effort spent on the West investigation, we can be fairly sure that the ATF would not conclude that the explosion resulted from a deliberate act unless they have strong and convincing evidence.  I'm sure the residents of West are eager to hear the details of the ATF's findings, which I hope will be released in due time.  But I'm sorry that after all the suffering those folks have had to go through, they now have to deal with the real possibility that someone, somewhere intended for the West explosion to happen.

Sources:  This news was reported in various sources, and in particular a Houston Chronicle article by  Mark Collette at http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/ATF-says-West-explosion-was-a-criminal-act-7462148.php to which I referred.  A video of the news conference at which Robert Elder announced the ATF's findings was posted by the Dallas Morning News at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJWa3tDEYL4.  The ATF's announcement of a reward in connection with the explosion can be found at https://www.atf.gov/news/pr/atf-announces-50000-reward-west-texas-fatality-fire.  I referred to the U. S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board's final report on the explosion at http://www.csb.gov/assets/1/19/West_Fertilizer_FINAL_Report_for_website_0223161.pdf.  I also referred to the New Yorker website version of the article "Trial by Fire" at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/trial-by-fire and the Wikipedia articles on the West Fertilizer Company explosion and John Leonard Orr.