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 at and The Telegraph (UK) at, 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 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  The ATF's announcement of a reward in connection with the explosion can be found at  I referred to the U. S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board's final report on the explosion at  I also referred to the New Yorker website version of the article "Trial by Fire" at and the Wikipedia articles on the West Fertilizer Company explosion and John Leonard Orr. 

Monday, May 09, 2016

A Test Case For How To Lower Carbon Emissions: Texas

No, I haven't gone off my nut with blind patriotism toward my native state.  Yes, I know that ex-governor Rick Perry said in 2014, "Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice [to] the country, and I believe a disservice to the world."  But the fact of the matter is that Texas has the most installed wind-generation capacity of any state, more even than California, and shows no signs of turning back.  How we got here is a lesson in the effects of government regulation, and shows that sometimes less is more.

In an Associated Press article, reporter Michael Biesecker points out the irony that three of the leading wind-generation states—Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—are also home to state and federal lawmakers who have been the most critical of climate-change ideas and most supportive of fossil fuel businesses such as oil and coal.  He shows that in both 2014 and 2015, U. S. utilities spent more money installing renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar than they did building fossil-fueled power plants.  And the fossil-fuel plants they did build mostly burn natural gas, which contributes less to the carbon-dioxide burden of the atmosphere than coal does.  The fact that natural gas is so popular is largely because it's cheaper these days, and that's because the largely Texas-based oil-and-gas-extraction industry figured out how to do fracking, which has made more natural gas available now than we've had for a long time. 

A few years ago we were hearing calls for carbon taxes, heavy regulation of fossil-fuel industries, and draconian mandates for Federal- and state-funded renewable energy projects imposed from Washington and other centers of governmental power.  Largely because Washington has been gridlocked for the last five or six years, no significant Federal laws were passed, although the Obama administration has done what it could through executive actions in those directions. 

Meanwhile, in Texas we enjoy some peculiar advantages when it comes to doing new things with electric power.  Because years ago, Texas refused to interconnect in a major way with the electric grids in the rest of the country, most of the state gets power from an entity called ERCOT—the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.  Both physically and legally, ERCOT is independent from both the rest of the U. S. power grid and from the tangle of regulatory requirements that the rest of the country has to deal with whenever a power utility wants to do something different.  

As Kyle Downey points out in an article at, this freedom from outside utility regulations has allowed Texas to pass innovative laws such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard in 1999, which created mandates and funded incentives for utilities to develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  Modified over the years and threatened with repeal but never revoked, the Standard has succeeded beyond most people's expectations.  From barely 1,000 MW of installed wind-generation capacity in 2002, wind power has grown to the extent that about ten percent of all power produced in the state is generated by wind farms—some 17,000 MW as of 2015.   Many Texas utility customers can choose to "buy" only wind power through a trading system that gives choices of sources and pricing plans, and this has also allowed private individuals to vote for wind power with their wallets, rather than much more indirectly at the ballot box. 

The other factor Downey mentions that has made Texas a wind-power leader is that we have a lot of land in the Panhandle where the wind blows steadily almost all the time, and even conveniently gets stronger at night when other renewables such as solar conk out.  That everlasting wind on the prairie that early settlers often found so annoying is finally turning out to be a money-making asset.  The state has also provided a fund to connect the remote wind-generation farms to the demand centers in populated areas of the eastern and central part of the state with transmission lines, an essential ingredient of the process that legislatures often overlook when planning renewable-energy futures for their constituents.  Overall, the wind-power picture has never looked brighter in Texas, and there are more wind farms yet to be built.  One study has shown that even without government incentives, building a wind farm is now the cheapest way to install new generating capacity—even cheaper than fossil-fuel plants.

What are the implications of this story for the current debate over carbon emissions and global climate change?  For one thing, it tells me that predicting what people are going to do is hard, unless you restrict them with so many regulations that they don't have much choice.  Few forecasters a decade ago would have foreseen the U. S. getting to a point where it is nearly independent of oil imports, as we are now.  And even I thought that when certain wind-power subsidies came to an end, that the bottom would fall out of wind-generation growth in Texas.  I was wrong, obviously, and not for the first time. 

On a personal level, much of what an individual worries about does not in fact come to pass.  Something like this may be the case with carbon emissions.  In researching this article, I came across a chart showing that in 2013, China built more wind-generating power plant capacity than nuclear-powered plants.  China is still one of the world's largest offenders when it comes to carbon emission because of its huge number of coal-fired power plants, but it is an encouraging sign that even a highly autocratic government such as China's recognizes the good sense in encouraging renewable energy sources. 

All that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't going to go away overnight, and we will be dealing with the consequences of burning fossil fuels, whatever they turn out to be, for many decades.  But those who would like to empower a world government with the means of forcing people to quit burning fossil fuels should take a look at Texas, where climate-change deniers are happily building wind farms, making money, and thumbing their noses at regulators who are everywhere else but in Texas.  It's paradoxical, but it seems to work.

Sources:  The AP article by Michael Biesecker on how conservative states are leading the renewable-energy drive was carried by numerous outlets and is available on the U. S. News & World Report website at  Kyle Downey's article "The Mystery of Wind Energy in Texas" is at  Rick Perry's quotation is from and the article about wind energy in China is at

Monday, May 02, 2016

Smart Guns and the Law

Last Friday, President Obama announced a series of actions aimed at making smart guns a reality, rather than a lab curiosity that has never gotten beyond the demonstration stage.  A smart gun is one that in principle can be used only by its authorized owner.  If we had a magic smart-gun-making wand that we could wave and thereby grant the beneficences of intelligence and the moral judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas to every gun in the U. S., well, I suppose we would no longer have to worry about any gun being wrongly used ever again.  But that would require that guns have more smarts and judgment than the owners, and nobody's expecting the technology to go that far.  Even if the technology worked perfectly, it's easy to see that smart guns would eliminate only a fraction of the accidental and intentional shootings that gun regulations are intended to reduce, because no gun can tell whether its owner is using it for good or bad purposes.  And you can rest assured that if the only kinds of guns available were smart guns, that's the kind that criminals would use. 

Admittedly, accidental shootings such as the ones involving small children are the most tragic and unnecessary ones.  And almost any kind of smart-gun technology would go far to prevent gun accidents involving children who gain access to guns.  But this kind of accident is a small proportion of the annual gun-fatality roll in the United States, making up less than 5% of the 12,000 or so gun-related deaths in 2014. 

The President has stopped short of measures that would put the purchasing power of the federal government in play.  Without any enabling legislation, for example, he could have mandated that all future gun purchases by the U. S. government would be smart guns only.  He probably realized that such a mandate would seriously handicap the FBI and other federal domestic law-enforcement personnel, because right now, there is no generally available smart-gun technology, because basically, nobody wants to buy one.

Anytime U. S. gun laws are discussed, the National Rifle Association has to be considered.  The NRA's official position is that they do not oppose smart-gun technology per se, but do not want it mandated by legal fiat.  Instead, the NRA prefers to let market forces lead the technological development.  This is a little bit like saying, "Let the market decide how many Ferraris we should make with speed-control governors keeping them from exceeding a speed of 60 miles an hour (100 km/hr)."  The whole point of buying a Ferrari is to be able to go fast, and the NRA knows very well that if the matter is left to the market, the market will go on rejecting the idea of smart guns, as it has for the last twenty-five years or more. 

There are two main reasons that smart guns and smart-gun laws have not proved popular:  one pertaining to the technology itself, and the other having to do with the legislators who would have to make the smart-gun laws.

The technological reason is that none of the dozen or more different approaches to making smart guns seems to work very well.  Some of them use biometric sensors—these are not yet advanced enough to be used for routine computer-ID purposes.  And a law-enforcement officer wants a gun that's at least as reliable as getting money out of an ATM.  Others depend on the user wearing some kind of wireless ID bracelet or RFID chip.  Well, gosh, what if you leave it at home with your other pair of trousers?  Or what if the crooks figure out a way to jam the RFID chip (that's not hard, incidentally)?  And so on.  Every single smart-gun technology idea has some potential for failure, which adds to the chances that a gun won't be usable when it's most needed.  To most potential gun purchasers, the incremental value added of knowing that unauthorized users can't fire the gun is not worth the complications of carrying around an RFID bracelet or hoping that your gun will recognize you despite your recent haircut, or whatever means it uses.

The second reason that most gun owners (and in reality, the NRA) detest the idea of smart-gun legislation is pointed out ably by Jon Stokes, a blogger at  It turns out that the legislators who are most enthusiastic about gun regulation tend to know the least about guns.  He cites the example of the 1994 Federal legislation banning "assault weapons."  Now in order to ban something, you have to have at least a vague idea of what it is you're banning.  So the law had a kind of laundry list of features that made a gun an assault weapon, including such things as a vertical foregrip.  This is a kind of stick-like doohickey that extends down from the middle or so of the barrel and gives you something to do with your non-trigger hand.  The presence of that one little optional feature made the gun an assault weapon, and ipso facto illegal.  The 1994 law has been superseded since then, but Stokes points out that any smart-gun law will face the same problem:  what makes a gun smart?  What design features specifically qualify it to be a smart gun?  And inevitably, the lawmakers will be forced into the nitty-gritty of gun design, for which activity they are dubiously qualified at best.  

Guns have a special place in the American psyche.  Here in Texas, they are part of the culture to a degree that is unimaginable in San Francisco or Boston, and while I do not personally have any truck with guns, I have several friends who do own and use them responsibly.  Maybe the fact that President Obama is directing more federal R&D funds to the problem will uncover a single technology that will make smart guns as easy and reliable to use as the "safety" that keeps a gun from going off when set that way by the user, and which has been a standard feature of many firearms since at least 1911.  And maybe state or federal legislators will educate themselves enough on how guns really work and are used to pick the best smart-gun technology to require gunmakers to install.  But right now, I'm not seeing a lot of speed-controlled Ferraris on the road, and I would not risk a bet on smart-gun legislation getting very far any time soon.

Sources:  The New York Times and many other news outlets covered President Obama's announcement on Apr. 29 concerning smart guns at  I also referred to an article on Fox News at  The White House website carried a statement coordinated with the announcement at  Jon Stokes' piece "Why the NRT hates smart guns" is on Techcrunch at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on smart guns and "Safety (firearms)."  The gun-fatality statistic is from

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Pemex Vinyl Chloride Plant Explosion

Unless you work in the petrochemical industry, you have probably never been near the substance called vinyl chloride.  It is a chlorinated hydrocarbon that is made when one of the four hydrogen atoms in the compound called ethylene is replaced by a chlorine atom.  On the other hand, unless you live in a house whose plumbing is all more than forty or so years old, you probably use products made with vinyl chloride every day.  Polyvinylchloride (PVC) pipes are used in the plumbing of nearly all new residential and business construction, and about 40 million metric tons (units of 1,000 kg) of PVC plastic were made in 2013.  But all PVC pipes were once the toxic, flammable liquid called vinyl chloride, and that is what may have got loose at the Pemex chlorinate 3 plant in the Gulf Coast city of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico last Wednesday, Apr. 20.  The resulting explosion and fire killed at least 28 people and injured over a hundred, with more still missing as of today.

Besides the immediate human tragedy, this accident raises important questions about the safety record of the state-owned petroleum company Pemex.

At this writing, little is known about the cause of the blast.  Coatzacoalcos is a town at the very southernmost tip of the Gulf of Mexico, in the Mexican state of Veracruz between central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.  It is one of the main export terminals for Mexican oil and is a logical location for a vinyl-chloride plant, since its manufacture requires large quantities of the petrochemical ethylene.  The chlorinate 3 plant is a joint venture between Pemex and a PVC-pipe manufacturer called Mexichem. 

As with many petrochemicals, vinyl chloride is hazardous in several ways.  If released into the air, it evaporates into a dense vapor and can catch fire if a source of ignition such as an automobile engine is nearby.  Worse yet, the products of combustion are themselves hazardous:  hydrogen chloride (which when dissolved in water makes hydrochloric acid), and phosgene, which was used as a poison gas in World War I.  Besides the danger of explosion and fire, vinyl chloride is extremely toxic, and causes liver damage in animals at concentrations in air as low as 500 parts per million.  Higher concentrations cause acute illness and even death.  Because of these hazards, vinyl chloride is usually stored in double-walled containers under pressure, with leak monitors that detect low levels of leakage from the inner container before the outer wall is breached. 

It may take months before we can learn exactly what happened at Coatzacoalcos, but it is obvious that a large amount of something flammable got loose.  Some reports mention a strong odor of ammonia, which could be from refrigeration machinery used in process cooling operations in the plant.  Whether or not vinyl chloride itself was released, the high death toll says several things about this accident.

First, one can ask why there were so many people in a hazardous area.  The trend in modern petrochemical operations is to reduce staffing to the point that in emergencies or during strikes, an entire plant can be operated safely from one central control room.  Although this is speculation, it is possible that Pemex, being owned by the Mexican government, has adopted a different policy and relies more on hands-on operators in its plants as a way of increasing government-paid employment.  Whatever the reason, Pemex's safety record is not good.  News reports of this accident relate that in 2012, 26 people were killed in a natural-gas facility owned by Pemex and in 2013, an explosion in Pemex's Mexico City facilities killed 37 people. 

Next, what kind of safety culture does Pemex have?  To run a complex petrochemical plant without accidents is a monumental task, and many safety priorities are expensive, in the sense that they take resources which otherwise could be used to enlarge the firm's bottom line.  With the recent crash in oil prices, there are reports that Pemex is cutting expenses, and this latest accident raises the question of whether safety has been sacrificed to budget considerations.

Finally, there is Pemex's status as a state-owned enterprise.  I am not familiar with Mexican law, but it is quite possible that it is either statutorily or practically difficult to sue Pemex.  Also, Pemex may be self-insured rather than purchasing hazard insurance on the open market.  Both of these factors, if true, remove two of the greatest incentives private firms have to run their operations safely:  fear of lawsuits from injured parties and financial pressure from private insurers to run a safe and low-claims operation.  Without such incentives, Pemex management has only its own integrity to rely on for worker safety, and the demands for sustaining profits in the face of falling oil prices may have overwhelmed safety concerns. 

I hope that the investigative bodies in Mexico have all the competence and authority they need, not only to get to the bottom of this tragedy, but to publicize its causes and assign responsibility wherever it needs to be assigned.  Again, the status of Pemex as a state-owned firm may lead to conflicts of interest between state officials who want to make workplaces safer, and other officials who do not want to see a state-owned enterprise called to account.  The loser in such a conflict will be the workers who have the choice of being paid to put their lives on the line in a hazardous workplace, or to go somewhere else and earn even less than the $12,000 US annual salary that was the average in 2005 for Mexican chemical engineers. 

If reports surface in English as to the cause of this accident, it will be interesting to learn whether poor safety practices contributed to it.  In the meantime, my sympathy goes to all of those who lost loved ones or were injured.  And I hope this latest incident leads to a re-evaluation of the entire safety culture of Pemex, which looks like it could use a lot of work.

Sources:  I referred to a Reuters report on the accident at, an ABC News report at, a Fox News item at, and a CNN report at  I also referred to statistics on PVC production at, a salary survey for Mexico at, and the Wikipedia articles on vinyl chloride and ethylene. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Should We Mind Minecraft?

If you've been around teenagers at all in the last few years, or if you are one yourself, you've probably run across someone who plays Minecraft, the computer game invented in Sweden in 2009.  I first encountered it a few years ago when we were visiting my 13-year-old nephew in Kansas.  I sat behind him in his father's car and watched over his shoulder as he constructed some kind of structure with what to me looked like amazing speed and skill.  He showed me some of the elaborate buildings he'd made with it and explained how he played the game with friends who could send wild animal-like creatures his way.  It all sounded rather weird, but at the same time I was fascinated by the basic premise of the game:  unless you build it, it isn't there.

In this week's New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson, author of the book Smarter Than You Think:  How Technology is Changing Our Minds For the Better, describes the origin, popularity, and multifaceted nature of Minecraft.  It appeals to both sexes and a wide range of ages, and in contrast to many slash-and-burn single-shooter-type games, parental attitudes toward it range mostly from the neutral to the favorable. 

Some people even say that playing Minecraft teaches kids useful skills, ranging from programming and logic design to three-dimensional visualization and the ability to deal with computer-aided design programs.  I suppose some education-psychology wonks will sooner or later divide a group of kids into Minecraft players and non-Minecraft players, and do a bunch of tests on them to see whether any of this is true.  Whatever the results are, I'm willing to go with the idea that Minecraft appeals to the creative part of one's personality, rather than the destructive part.  Although there can be plenty of destruction in Minecraft too—I've seen my nephew wipe out whole virtual city blocks and start over when things didn't go the way he wanted.

All the same, there's something about Minecraft that reminds me of an analogous trend from my own teenage years:  the golden age of electronics tinkering in the 1960s.  Transistors had just begun to replace the bulky, inefficient, and sometimes dangerous vacuum tubes, and for a few dollars spent at Radio Shack you could purchase hours of pleasant fiddling with amplifiers, oscillators, and logic circuits.  And I did. 

Thompson points out that one feature of Minecraft—"redstone"—acts basically like electric current, and you can build switches, relays, and highly complex logic circuits, all without ever having cracked a book on Boolean algebra.  He cites the case of Natalie, a fifth-grade girl, who he observes as she busily debugs her logic circuit when it fails to do exactly what she wants. 

This is good in some ways and not good in other ways, as I can explain from personal experience.

The childhood and teenage brain is never as plastic later as it is then.  Things you learn when you're 16 or younger are going to stay with you in a powerful way the rest of your life.  Depending on what you learn and how you learn it, this can be an unalloyed asset, a mixed asset and liability, or a liability.  With me, tinkering with electronics when I was young has turned out to have mixed results, although the balance sheet turned out to be positive.

Yes, I taught myself to do some pretty impressive things, like building a taped-program robot that could pick up things off the carpet of my room.  I also learned to use old junk as my supply depot instead of earning money to buy new stuff.  And as a kind of lone wolf of the electronics world, I grew up with no connection between what I was interested in and what the rest of the world happened to want.  As a result, my professional career in electronics had a firm technical foundation.  But I have also been plagued by what I recognize now is a bad habit of scrimping and making do with old junk around the lab, rather than asking for project money up front to do the job properly with state-of-the-art equipment.  And I have always had trouble making my own interests conform to what anybody else is interested in, which makes for problems when you try to get outside funding.

Yes, kids who devise what amounts to combinatorial logic circuits when they are ten years old will probably be able to do that pretty well in college, too.  "So that's what it's called!" they may say in their first digital-logic class, and go on to become brilliant computer scientists and designers.  On the other hand, when you reinvent the wheel on your own, you're not likely to approach the subject in a way that subsequent experience has shown to be the most efficient fashion.  People who teach themselves coding often write what college-trained programmers call "spaghetti code"—so tangled and needlessly complicated that nobody else can figure out what's going on, not even the person who wrote it, at least after a while.  So while learning system administration and coding and logic design when you're ten can be cool, you can also acquire some deeply ingrained habits that may turn out to be liabilities in the long run.

Alexander Woollcott, a radio personality of the 1940s, told the story of how the comedian Harpo Marx, after he became famous for his self-taught Broadway performances on the harp with his brothers' comedy team, decided one day he could finally afford harp lessons.  So Harpo found a professional harpist willing to teach him at ten dollars a half hour.  As Woollcott put it, ". . . the Maestro, having heard him play, swore there would be no way of his unlearning all the shockingly wrong things he knew about the harp."  Then the Maestro got Harpo to show him how Harpo did some things with the harp that the Maestro thought were not possible.  At the end of the half hour, Harpo paid his ten bucks, but as he'd been doing all the teaching, he never went back.

Not everybody who plays Minecraft is going to wind up as the Harpo of their techie generation.  And some of them may learn habits that will cause future teachers some distress, as the Maestro felt when he watched Harpo play.  But it's nice that at least one computer game out there invites you to get under the hood of the often opaque computer systems we live with so much and actually make something you can understand more or less completely, because you built it.  And if it breaks, you can try to fix it instead of just cussing the anonymous developers who should know better than to ship defective software. 

The inventor of Minecraft, Markus Persson, sold it for $2.4 billion to Microsoft in 2014 and washed his hands of the whole business after discovering that fielding thousands of inquiries from the millions of Minecraft fans wore him out.  But the thing he invented lives on, and I hope its career in the future will be as benign and instructional as it has been so far. 

Sources:  The article "The Minecraft Generation" by Clive Thompson appeared in the online New York Times Magazine on Apr. 17, 2016 at  The story (possibly apocryphal) of Harpo's harp lessons appeared in the March 1926 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, the text of which is accessible at  And at last report, my nephew was running a YouTube channel with a microphone we bought him for Christmas, giving advice to other Minecraft players online.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Will Robots Ever Have Moral Authority?

Robots build cars, clean carpets, and answer phones, but would you trust one to decide how you should be treated in a rest home or a hospital?  That's one of the questions raised recently by a thoughtful article in the online business news journal Quartz.  Journalist Olivia Goldhill interviewed ethicists and computer scientists who are thinking about and working on plans to enable computers and robots to make moral decisions.  To some people, this smacks of robots taking over the world.  Before you get out the torches and pitchforks, however, let me summarize what the researchers are trying to do.

Some of the projects are nothing more than a type of expert system, a decision-making aid that has already found wide usefulness in professions such as medicine, engineering, and law.  For example, the subject of international law can be mind-numbingly complicated.  Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are trying to develop machines that will ensure compliance with international law by programming in all the relevant codes (in the law sense) so that the coding (in the computer-science sense) will lead to decisions or outcomes that automatically comply with the pertinent statutes.  This amounts to a sort of robotic legal assistant with flawless recall, but one that doesn't make final decisions on its own.  That would be left to a human lawyer, presumably.

Things are a little different with a project that a philosopher Susan Anderson and her computer-scientist husband Michael Anderson are working on:  a program that advises healthcare workers caring for elderly patients.  Instead of programming in explicit moral rules, they teach the machine by example.  The researchers take a few problem cases and let the machine know what they would do, and after that the machine can deal with similar problems.  So far it's all a hypothetical academic exercise, but in Japan, where one out of every five residents is over 65, robotic eldercare is a booming business.  It's just a matter of time until someone installs a moral-decision program like the one the Andersons are developing in a robot that may be left on its own with an old geezer, such as the writer of this blog, for example.

What the Quartz article didn't address directly is the question of moral authority.  And here is where we can find some matters for genuine concern.

Many of the researchers working on aspects of robot morality evinced frustration that human morality is not, and may never be, reducible to the kind of algorithms that computers can execute.  Everybody who has thought about the question realizes that morality isn't as simple and straightforward as playing tick-tack-toe.  Even the most respected human moral reasoners will often disagree about the best decision in a given ethical situation.  But this isn't the fundamental problem in implementing moral reasoning in robots.

Even if we could come up with robots who could write brilliant Supreme Court decisions, there would be a basic problem with putting black robes on a robot and seating it on the bench.  As most people will still agree, there is a fundamental difference in kind between humans and robots.  To avoid getting into deep philosophical waters at this point, I will simply say that it's a question of authority.  Authority, in the sense I'm using it, can only vest in human beings.  So while robots and computers might be excellent moral advisers to humans, by the nature of the case it must be humans who will always have moral authority and who make moral decisions. 

If someone installs a moral-reasoning robot in a rest home and lets it loose with the patients, you might claim that the robot has authority in the situation.  But if you start thinking like a civil trial lawyer and ask who is ultimately responsible for the actions of the robot, you will realize that if anything goes seriously wrong, the cops aren't going to haul the robot off to jail.  No, they will come after the robot's operators and owners and programmers—the human beings, in other words, who installed the robot as their tool, but who are still morally responsible for its actions. 

People can try to abdicate moral responsibility to machines, but that doesn't make them any less responsible.  For example, take the practice of using computerized credit-rating systems in making consumer loans.  My father was a loan officer at a bank in the 1960s before such credit-rating systems came into widespread use.  He used references, such bank records as he had access to, and his own gut feelings about a potential customer to decide whether to make a loan.  Today, most loan officers have to take a customer's computer-generated numerical credit rating into account, and the job of making a loan is sometimes basically a complicated algorithm that could almost be executed by a computer. 

But automation did not stop the banking industry from running over a cliff during the housing crash of 2007.  Nobody blamed computers alone for that debacle—it was the people who believed in their computer forecasts and complex computerized financial instruments who led the charge, and who bear the responsibility.  The point is that computers and their outputs are only tools.  Turning one's entire decision-making process over to a machine does not mean that the machine has moral authority.  It means that you and the machine's makers now share whatever moral authority remains in the situation, which may not be much.

I say not much may remain of moral authority, because moral authority can be destroyed.  When Adolf Hitler came to power, he supplanted the established German judicial system of courts with special "political courts" that were empowered to countermand verdicts of the regular judges.  While the political courts had power up to and including issuing death sentences, history has shown that they had little or no moral authority, because they were corrupt accessories to Hitler's debauched regime.

As Anglican priest Victor Austin shows in his book Up With Authority, authority inheres only in persons.  While we may speak colloquially about the authority of the law or the authority of a book, it is a live lawyer or expert who actually makes moral decisions where moral authority is called for.  Patrick Lin, one of the ethics authorities cited in the Quartz article, realizes this and says that robot ethics is really just an exercise in looking at our own ethical attitudes in the mirror of robotics, so to speak.  And in saying this, he shows that the dream of relieving ourselves of ethical responsibility by handing over difficult ethical decisions to robots is just that—a dream. 

Sources:  The Quartz article "Can We Trust Robots To Make Moral Decisions?" by Olivia Goldhill appeared on Apr. 3, 2016 at  (I thank my wife for pointing it out to me.)  The statistic about the number of aged people in Japan is from, and my information about Hitler's political courts appears on the website of the Holocaust Memorial Museum at  Victor Lee Austin's Up With Authority was published in 2010 by T&T Clark International.