Monday, October 16, 2017

The Story of ?????


Time for a little anthropological investigation.  You can tell a lot from a culture by finding out what its members think is funny.  In my present line of work I rarely have dealings with upwardly-mobile single women in their mid-thirties.  But just such a person, by the name of Susanna Fogel, published a short humor piece in The New Yorker recently, and in it she says more about the ramifications of what is technically known as "oocyte cryopreservation" (I had to look it up)—in other words, having your eggs frozen—than many longer works of ethics or philosophy.

The piece is entitled "Your Frozen Egg Has a Question."  The accompanying drawing shows a thirty-something gal holding open the freezer door of an ordinary refrigerator.  In the freezer there's nothing but a test tube and a sealed envelope.  So the reader is ready for the conceit that the frozen egg has written a note to its—what?  Donor?  Not mother, not yet, anyway.

It is just such ambiguities that Fogel plays with as the piece develops.  The first line is "Wait, O. K., how do I address this letter?  Who are you now, exactly, in relation to me?"  Is an egg the same substance as the woman's body?  Or different?  It's clearly special, but until it's fertilized, well, the moral status of eggs, as well as fertilized embryos, is not a clear-cut thing to everyone by any means.

Another profound question without a definite answer comes up in the next paragraph:  "Will I continue to be thirty-five until you defrost me?"  Is a piece of frozen tissue from a living human alive, strictly speaking?  Or dead?  Or is the question meaningless?  Clearly, the thread running through the pice that makes this interesting is the egg's potential for becoming a human being.  But a lot has to happen before that potential can be actualized, and a frozen egg is about as inert, action-wise, as you can get.

Why do single women have their eggs frozen?  It's an expensive procedure running upwards of several thousand dollars, with ongoing storage costs.  The Wikipedia article on oocyte cryopreservation lists three groups of women for whom the procedure is helpful:  those whose fertility may be terminated by chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, those who are trying to have children with assisted reproductive technologies but don't want to freeze fertilized embryos, and those who may want to be able to have children in the future, for "personal or medical reasons."  I think the addressee in the humor piece is in the third category—those who want help from technology to stop their biological clock from ticking, in other words.

In the piece, somehow the egg knows about conversations with the donor's therapist, and comments on them:  ". . . you've admitted that you're not sure parenthood is right for you at all, and that you're worried you're just freezing your eggs because of societal expectations and your parents' hints about grandchildren."  The letter winds up rather poignantly, "Just circle back to me sooner rather than later if you can.  And happy Valentine's Day.  Sincerely, ?????"

The aim of much technological progress is to extend the sphere of personal control over matters that used to be regarded as given.  Human fertility is one of those matters.  With medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization and the freezing of fertilized embryos and (unfertilized) eggs, people who formerly were unable to have children have been enabled to become parents.  And those who can't make up their minds can at least have a chance of delaying their decision until after the natural time at which it would become impossible to conceive.

These matters go to the heart of what one believes about the nature of humans and the meaning of life.  If you think that the highest form of life is human beings, then we are on our own with regard to how best to use these technologies.  Other than talking to your therapist, who is only going to say something like "live your truth," (as the therapist in the article does) you are alone with your thoughts and your frozen eggs, whose fate is entirely up to you.  It is a fearful responsibility to bring a new human life into the world, and the shadow of this responsibility gives the article much of its energy and tension.

Is the situation any better for those who believe that God is the highest form of life and the designer of the universe, including human beings and the way they customarily come into the world?  At least a therapist has a name and an address, and you can make an appointment and talk with him.  But God—if you say you've heard from God that you're supposed to have a baby, well, some people will start avoiding you.  And you may not like the people who agree with you. 

Still, if God is in the picture, there is a framework of meaning given to life.  The intention to have a baby is no longer an autonomous and entirely self-determined decision.  If no human being is a surprise to God, then every pregnant woman has the most powerful Being in the universe rooting for her.  That can be a lot more encouraging than a therapist. 

Maybe all this strikes you as making an ethical mountain out of what was intended to be a humorous molehill—just a short magazine article that was intended to be funny.  But the piece struck me as sad rather than funny.  (Full disclosure:  most of the pieces that The New Yorker publishes in their humor department don't strike me as funny.  But that's no criticism of them.  I just happen to have an antiquated sense of humor that went out of fashion with Jack Benny (1894-1974).) 

Much humor is separated from tragedy only by one's point of view.  While today's society vaunts individual freedom and gives men and women the power to separate their sexual lives from the question of reproduction, it has also led to a type of alienation that divides a woman from her own eggs, as Susanna Fogel has so effectively expressed in her piece.  Reproductive technologies such as oocyte cryopreservation can be a blessing for those whose fertility might otherwise be lost.  But they can also lead to morally ambiguous situations that ordinary people may not be equipped to deal with, except by trying to laugh it off.

Sources:  Susanna Fogel's "Your Frozen Egg Has a Question" appeared on p. 39 of the print edition of The New Yorker for May 22, 2017, and is also available online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/22/your-frozen-egg-has-a-question.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Car Infotainment Distractions Can Be Deadly


A study just released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that many 2017-model cars have infotainment features that can dangerously distract drivers.  Such distractions may be an important reason why, after declining for years, the annual car-fatality rate in the U. S. rose in 2016.

A report in the Washington Post describes how University of Utah researcher David Strayer led a study involving about 30 different 2017-model vehicles, ranging from a Ford F250s to a Tesla Model S.  Test subjects performed infotainment-feature-related  tasks while being monitored in various ways, and while also having to push a button every time a buzzer went off.  The delay between the buzzer and the button-pushing has been found to be a good indication of how distracted the driver is.  And while all this was going on, the subjects were driving down a low-traffic residential street, so the whole experiment was conducted during real-life driving.

The findings were not encouraging.  Some tasks, such as programming a navigation system, took an average of 40 seconds to do. Some vehicles were twice as demanding as others on average, based on a rating called the "overall demand," which included a variety of visual and cognitive tasks. 

The Post article quotes AAA chief executive Marshall Doney as saying that there are some things we have no business doing while behind the wheel.  The U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines to automakers in 2012, asking them to block certain kinds of tasks involving infotainment systems unless the vehicle is parked.  But this call has gone largely unheeded.

It's interesting that the two vehicles with the most demanding electronics were the Honda Ridgeline, Honda's answer to US-brand luxury pickups, and the Volvo Inscription, another luxury passenger car.  Among the cars with the less-demanding systems were the Ford F-250 pickup and the Chevrolet Equinox.  It begins to look like this problem is a side effect of carmakers' attempts to load up their vehicles with many-featured electronics in the higher-end models especially.  The practice of piling on new software features, whether useful or not, is familiar to anyone who has used computers recently, which basically means everybody. 

It's one thing to sit at your desk and fume at Excel for burying a function you liked in an avalanche of newer features that you find largely useless.  But it's quite another thing to be driving on an LA freeway and trying to program your next real-estate appointment address into your GPS system at the same time.  As unwise as such an action is, people will do it, and get away with it too, at least for a while. 

The car manufacturers face a dilemma.  The IT features of a car are sometimes one of the main things that set a vehicle apart from the competition, so you can't expect the carmakers to stop trying to offer newer and more exciting infotainment features. 

But safety can get lost in the shuffle.  A car company can either install lock-out technology that just flat prevents the user from doing time-and-attention-intensive tasks while driving, or the firm can simply warn the consumer not to do such things while in motion.  Most companies have taken the latter course, with the excuse that if people do stupid things, well, we told them not to do that, so you can't blame us. 

In other areas of human endeavor, this approach has been tried and found wanting.  In the field of occupational health and safety, for example, workplaces in factories used to be extremely dangerous, with bare moving belts and moving parts everywhere.  Employees were simply warned to stay out of harm's way, but that wasn't always possible, and a lot of people got killed.  With the advent of workmens' compensation insurance and government supervisory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), attitudes changed.  Now employers largely accept the responsibility for building in safety in their plants with shields, safety interlocks, and procedures that approach being foolproof in many cases.  No small part of this change is due to pressure brought to bear on miscreant manufacturers by insurance companies that got tired of paying out premiums to workers injured at needlessly hazardous plants.

It may be that auto insurance companies will need to play a role in making sure that infotainment features don't distract drivers to death.  When you realize that only a certain fraction of cars on the road are replaced with new ones every year, the suspicious upward trend in car fatalities becomes even more ominous.  One wonders what would happen if everybody like me (our newest car is a dozen years old) bought a new car and started trying to use the navigation system in an injudicious way. 

I don't know whether auto insurance rates vary much from vehicle to vehicle based on the model's safety record, but if a prospective buyer learned that the bells-and-whistles luxury model he was about to buy carried a huge insurance price tag, he might hesitate.  And the carmaker might do something about installing a gentle form of lockout, making it at least inconvenient to use some of the more demanding features while actually driving, which would make the insurance companies happier.

What is generally regarded as the first fatality in an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle—the crash that killed Joshua Brown—occurred allegedly while Brown had set his Tesla Model S in self-driving mode and was watching a video.  Admittedly, this is carrying distracted "driving" to the extreme, and was against the manufacturer's instructions.  But it shows that if a system allows the driver to do a stupid thing, somebody somewhere will eventually do it, and sometimes with dire results.

No movie, song, or GPS information is worth a person's life.  Carmakers need to realize that they are undermining a decades-long trend of improved car safety with the fancy gizmos they are shipping with each new vehicle.  If the average consumer isn't smart enough to avoid the new hazards, something else needs to be done.  Voluntary compliance with the 2012 NHTSA lockout guidelines would be nice.  But if history is any guide, automakers may need the encouragement of laws and regulations to implement new electronic infotainment features that are both attractive and safe to use.

Sources:  The Washington Post carried the article by Ashley Halsey III, "New cars have more distracting technology on board than ever before," in the October 3, 2017 online edition at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/new-cars-have-more-distracting-technology-on-board-than-ever-before/2017/10/04/8dc1e91e-a880-11e7-b3aa-c0e2e1d41e38_story.html.  I also referred to the original AAA report, "Visual and cognitive demands of using in-vehicle infotainment systems," which is available at https://www.aaafoundation.org/sites/default/files/Report_0.pdf.  My blog on the Joshua Brown accident appeared at http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2016/07/self-driving-car-fatality-no-1-joshua.html on July 4, 2016.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Internet Security Isn't Child's Play


Full disclosure:  my wife and I have never had children.  The closest we have come to full-time responsibility for someone younger than 80 was when our ten-year-old nephew came to stay with us for part of the summer of 2013.  So what I have to say about the hazards of buying smart Internet-connected toys for your kids is, from my point of view, entirely hypothetical and untouched by the seasoning of personal experience.  Nevertheless, it's a new kind of problem and those with parental responsibilities need to be aware of it.

For the last several years, one of the biggest trends on the consumer-electronics horizon has been the Internet of Things (IoT).  It's now so cheap to connect tiny, inexpensive devices to increasingly powerful cloud-computing apps on the Internet that companies are falling over each other trying to get their IoT-enabled gizmos to consumers.  And the gold-rush analogy is especially apt for the toy market, which is highly seasonal and driven by novelty even more than the rest of the consumer business. 

When IoT came along, we began to see a flock of toys that connect to the Internet for some of the same reasons devices for adults do:  message sharing, video recording, GPS-enabled location features, and so on.  But when adults use IoT-enabled equipment, there is at least a presumption that they can read instructions and take whatever precautions are needed to keep malign third parties from exploiting the window into your personal life that bringing an IoT-enabled device into your home opens. 

Not so with children.  A recent story in the Washington Post details how the FBI had issued a consumer notice about "smart toys" that connect to the Internet.  Inspired partly by recalls in Europe of a talking doll that a hacker could use as a listening device, the FBI says that parents should be very careful about purchasing or setting up any toy that can connect to the Internet. 

While I'm not aware of any crimes that have been shown to be committed by such means, it's not hard to imagine such a situation.  Organized housebreakers could take a look around your home while little Johnny is dragging his Internet-enabled megatherium through the living room, and use its GPS to find just where that priceless collection of jewels from the court of Louis XIV is kept on display.  Even creepier is the notion that a crook bent upon kidnaping or worse could start talking to your daughter through her doll:  "Yes, I want you to meet a friend of mine.  He's waiting right outside the front door.  Mommy's asleep, isn't she?  Come on outside . . . ."  Sounds like a bad horror film, but the technology is there already.

The FBI's recommendations are not surprising, for the most part:  know whether the toy you're thinking of buying has been reported for problems with security, read the disclosures and privacy policies provided with the toy (if any), monitor your child's activity with the toy, use good password hygiene, don't tell the company any more than you have to when setting up the toy to work through your wireless system, etc.  Some of this advice falls in the wouldn't-it-be-nice category, such as reading disclosure and privacy policies.  First, hire a lawyer to interpret the policy, if it's written like most boiler-plate software agreements.  And while monitoring a child's use of the toy is a good idea, parents can be only one place at a time, and one reason for buying a child toys is so they can amuse themselves and not depend on you to be there fending off boredom for them every second.  Or at least that's the impression I get from a few parents I know.

The hazards of smart toys are just one more chink in the Swiss cheese of what used to be armor that most parents erected around their children.  Here's just one example of that armor from my own childhood, back when men were men and megatheriums roamed the earth. 

My father was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound repo man for a few years.  Repossessing cars from uncooperative borrowers is not for the faint of heart, and in a crisis I'm sure he could cuss as well as anybody.  But until I was a teenager, I never heard a swear word pass his lips, even when I drove my tricycle into the ladder he was using to hold a paint can and dumped a gallon of gray oil paint all over his head.  (Well, maybe he did cuss then and I just didn't understand what he was saying.) 

The point is that he went out of his way to create a kind of bubble of innocence or protection around us children.  There were some TV shows we couldn't watch and some magazines we couldn't look at, even back in the halcyon 1960s.  Back then, of course, electronic media had just barely started to infiltrate the home, radio and TV being the only means of entry.  Since both my parents were gone before the Internet really got going, I will never know what their reaction to it would have been.  But suffice it to say I don't think my father's impression of it would have been positive.

Some ages exalt and glorify children, and others like ours seem to treat them as kind of an optional hobby for adults, instead of the seedbed of the next fifty to hundred years of civilization.  Like it or not, children in advanced industrial societies are going to grow up in a world where the Internet of Things is as routine to them as electric lights were to people my age.  The main role of parents as parents is to prepare children to live in the world they will inhabit, and hopefully make it a better place.  But first the children have to survive into adulthood.  And while the chances of anything bad happening to your child as a result of a smart toy is remote, it's one more thing to worry about in the process of raising children.  And at least we've been alerted to this problem before anyone has been harmed, as far as we know. 

Sources:  Elisabeth Leamy's article "The danger of giving your child 'smart toys'" appeared on Sept. 29, 2017 in the online version of the Washington Post at

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Prospect of Space Prospecting


Isaac Asimov's sci-fi story "Catch That Rabbit," published in 1944, is set in an asteroid mine and portrays what might happen if formerly obedient robots decided to rebel.  These days, Asimov's dream of space mining is a lot closer to reality, with several firms making definite plans to launch exploratory vehicles around 2020 and have full-scale mining up and running later in the decade.  But as an article in October's Scientific American points out, the legal status of space mining is by no means clear. 

It still costs a lot to put anything into space, or to bring it back, for that matter.  So instead of being enticed by visions of extraterrestrial gold and diamonds, space-mining companies have their eyes on more prosaic materials that could be extracted from asteroids:  water for either human consumption or conversion into convenient rocket fuels such as hydrogen and oxygen, iron and refractory materials for construction, and other useful but bulky and heavy stuff that becomes very expensive to lug into space from Earth.  The idea is to extract enough materials from an asteroid to allow space-based operations that are supplied by space resources, rather than having to bring everything along with you.  Such space-based resupply stations will be necessary for any space exploration much beyond what we've attempted so far. 

That is well and good, but there's a little thing called the 1967 Outer Space Treaty standing in the way.  Almost 100 states (including the U. S., Russia, and China) have signed this agreement, which forbids colonization or use of space for military operations.  The key phrase in the treaty bans "national appropriation" of celestial bodies such as asteroids.  That means, for instance, you couldn't just hitch an asteroid to your spacecraft and drag it back home behind you.  Russia, for examples, interprets this phrase as prohibiting space mining.

On the other hand, U. S. companies argue that the international laws of the sea prohibit appropriation of international waters, but allow certain kinds of exploitation such as fishing and offshore drilling, although there's only an analogy between space law and sea law.  The real problem is that the 1967 agreement didn't address space mining in any detail.  Clearly, a new agreement would be nice to negotiate, but something called the Moon Agreement ran into opposition a few years ago and remains mostly unratified.  So countries aren't in the mood to sign away any rights to asteroids right now. 

It's rather disquieting to compare the current situation to, say, the way things were in Europe in the 1400s when expeditions to the New World were just beginning.  Right now, it's hard to imagine that anything going on at an asteroid or two would have significant consequences for the history of the Earth.  But few people were expecting that the voyages of an eccentric guy named Columbus would amount to much either. 

If one imagines a scenario in which space travel becomes highly valued for some reason, then space mining would suddenly take on a new and vital aspect.  There is already among some space-minded people an attitude that says our days on Earth are numbered, not only individually but collectively.  That is to say, just as America served as a place to make a new start for many who found Europe not to their liking for various reasons, the idea of space colonization (the Outer Space Treaty notwithstanding) serves as a kind of secular Paradise for people who have given up on the hope that we can agree to live here on Earth peacably and without trashing it beyond repair. 

So suppose a kind of abandon-ship mentality spreads among the elite and wealthy of many nations, and a keen competition arises to see who can manage to leave the sinking vessel the fastest.  Unless somebody invents a Star-Trek-type warp drive soon, space mining will be a necessary part of any large-scale space travel.  And one can easily imagine the powerful of different nations coming to blows over who gets to mine which asteroid.  After all, it's not that easy to sneak around in space, so covert operations are out.  Everybody would know what everybody else is doing, and things could get really ugly.

Not that they're real attractive right now.  I admit that in the present shape of world politics and affairs, a little thing like space mining is way down the priority list.  But there is still time now to examine the question dispassionately before vested interests get into the act and try to hijack the discussion in their favor.  Presently there are no significant vested interests out in space—no mines, no rockets heading out to do space mining, and only plans to do so yet.  I am generally no fan of the United Nations, but it seems like that would be a good forum in which to breach the subject of space mining and how plans could be coordinated so that if humankind does eventually decide to move into space in a major way, we could at least agree on the means and resources to make it possible and how to share them. 

But achieving a united vision of such prospects requires a type of diplomacy and leadership that is currently in short supply.  It may be that there will be a better time in the future to hash out an international agreement about space mining than now.  But as private space companies make more technical progress, the legal situation will either have to keep up with them or deal with the technology as it happens.  That won't be the first time—I don't think Columbus got a nicely notarized clear title to land he claimed for Spain, at least not from the folks whose land he was claiming.  And if you're thinking of investing in a space-mining company soon, be aware that there might be a few legal problems ahead.

Sources:  "Space Prospecting" by Jesse Dunietz appeared on pp. 14-16 of the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.  I also referred to an article in LiveScience at https://www.livescience.com/19862-asteroid-mining-fiction-present.html that refers to Asimov's story, and to the New World Encyclopedia's article on the Spanish Empire at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Spanish_Empire.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Looking Under the Rock: Equifax's Credit Breach


On Sept. 8, the credit-rating agency Equifax announced that they had discovered a security breach that compromised the data of over 140 million U. S. consumers.  The company admitted they had found out about the hack on July 29, almost six weeks before their public announcement.  Hackers were able to obtain names, Social Security numbers, addresses, birthdates, and even some driver license numbers.  The hackers gained access to Equifax's data through a flaw in a piece of open-source web software called Apache Struts.  The cybersecurity arm of the U. S. Homeland Security Administration had released a fix for the Apache Struts flaw back in March, but Equifax didn't apply it well enough to prevent the hack that began three months later, in May.  Equifax is currently being sued and is overwhelmed with consumers requesting freezes of their credit reports so as to prevent hackers from applying for credit under false names. 

Most of the time, the three quasi-monopoly credit rating agencies Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian are largely invisible to the public eye.  They don't sell their products directly to consumers—their customers are banks, loan companies, and other extenders of consumer credit.  The only time you as a consumer have any dealings with one of the Big Three may be when you apply for a home loan or car loan.  The rating you receive from a credit agency can mean the difference between buying a home and renting for the rest of your life, or being able to borrow more money on a credit card without paying ruinous interest.  So although there's not much you can do to affect what the agencies say about you, they hold considerable financial power over you.  The least you can expect from them is to act as responsible guardians of the highly personal data they accumulate under your name.  And Equifax's data breach betrayed that trust.

This is an odd situation, but has come about through the nature of our consumer-credit-intensive economy.  Back in the nineteenth century, when consumer credit was most often an informal arrangement between a general-store customer and the owner who knew the customer personally, there was no widespread need for consumer credit information.  However, commercial firms were interested enough in the creditworthiness of other firms that the "Mercantile Agency" of Dun, Barlow & Co. arose.  By 1876, this firm had a network of informants all across America, typically small-town lawyers, who periodically sent reports on local merchants to headquarters in New York City.  The reports were compiled and printed in a quarterly Reference Book to which interested credit-extenders subscribed. 

Dun, Barlow & Co. eventually became Dun & Bradstreet, a firm which still provides financial data on commercial firms today.  But then as now, credit-rating agencies sell information about consumers to companies, and it is in their self-interest to protect that information from compromise.  In this, Equifax has signally failed.

I have previously discussed in this space the qualities that any company caught in a crisis should have.  Among these are prompt action and transparency.  So far, Equifax has stumbled on both counts.  While it has to take a certain amount of time to apply patches to large software systems such as Equifax runs, data security is the essence of their business, and the three-month delay between learning about the Apache Struts flaw in March and the time when the data breach began in May was too long.  It took Equifax another two months to discover the breach, and then six more weeks went by before they announced to the public that it had happened.  Such delays might be excusable in a mom-and-pop grocery store, but not for one of the three largest credit-reporting firms in the U. S. 

What can you as a consumer do if you think your data may have been compromised?  Equifax has announced the waiver of the usual ten-dollar fee for a credit freeze, and if you can manage to push your way through their clogged website and phone tree to request one, that is one thing you can do.  And at least one law firm has announced its intention to launch a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all 140 million Americans affected by the breach.  But neither of these things will address the fundamental structural problem:  too much of our personal information is stored in places that are too vulnerable to unscrupulous hackers.

If (as is possible) it turns out that the hackers were not based in the U. S., there is an international twist to this tale.  In that regard, the Homeland Security Agency deserves kudos for doing what it ought to be doing:  finding ways that hackers can attack U. S. interests and helping private firms prevent such attacks.  But if the private firms drop the security ball, the government has wasted its time telling them about the problem.

In general, I regard government regulation as a last resort when other measures fail.  But as firms get larger and affect more and more people in a country, it's probably appropriate for them to come under the regulation of that country's government.  There is always going to be some kind of relationship between large firms and government, but that relationship can be either benign or malign for the consumer.  The pre-breakup Bell System was allowed to monopolize telecommunications in the U. S. until the 1980s, and in turn it accepted close government supervision and regulation of its tariffs and profits.  It may not have been the most innovative telecomm service in the world, but it was stable, predictable, and reliable.   

It may be time to require the Big Three credit agencies to submit to some kind of data-integrity requirement, or face penalties for data breaches that are so severe they will clean up their act.  But our track record of penalizing these types of agencies for past messups is poor.  One need only think back to the housing-bubble collapse of 2008 in which commercial rating agencies were gold-plating financial instruments that looked as solid as a rock until the bubble burst and knocked them over, revealing a nest of roaches and scorpions underneath. 

Equifax is at best guilty of incompetence.  Perhaps the marketplace will punish it enough to make it mend its ways.  But it may be time to re-examine some of our basic assumptions about the responsibilities of private credit-rating firms in our consumer economy.  And in the meantime, keep an eye on your credit rating.

Sources:  I referred to an article on the CNN website at http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/16/technology/equifax-breach-security-hole/index.html, a New York Times column by Ron Lieber posted on Sept. 14 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/14/your-money/equifax-answers-data-breach.html, and the Wikipedia articles on Equifax, Dun & Bradstreet, and credit freezes.  My information on Dun, Barlow & Co. in 1876 comes from p. 41 of a reproduction issue of the Asher & Adams Pictorial Album of American Industry (1876) published in 1976 by Rutledge Books. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mr. Damore, Welcome To the Prophet Club


In the Bible, being a prophet was not a sought-after job.  Prophets were chosen by God to deliver messages that more often than not turned out to be unwelcome.  And sooner or later, the same lack of welcome greeted the prophet himself as he stood in the city gate telling the people things they didn't want to hear.  Bad things tended to happen to prophets when they got on the wrong side of the establishment.  The prophet Jeremiah, after telling King Zedekiah to surrender to the attacking Babylonians, was accused of treachery and thrown into a muddy well, where he was left to die.  Only the intervention of a friendly official rescued him from a miserable death.

I don't think former Google engineer James Damore has any special line to the Almighty, but by now he has experienced the same thing that the biblical prophets discovered:  say things that the leadership doesn't want to hear, and sooner or later you're going to pay for it.  In response to a ten-page memo he posted entitled "Google's ideological echo chamber" in which he criticized the atmosphere created by gender-diversity programs at his company, the Internet lit up with a storm of attacks on him, and Google ended up firing him.  But exactly what did he say?  First, some background.

Like many companies these days, Google has initiatives and programs in diversity, including ones that attempt to change the fact that the percentage of women in computing is about 24%, according to an organization called Girls Who Code.  The desired change, naturally, is an increase to something closer to the representation of women in the overall U. S. population, which is 50.8%. 
           
I say "naturally" because there is a widely held assumption that when the percentage of women in a desirable field of endeavor—CEO suites, being rich, holding political office, or working at any job that the culture perceives to be desirable—falls below 50.8%, this proves that there is injustice somewhere that needs to be rooted out so that the percentage will more closely approach the magic 50.8%. 

If you look at this assumption on its own in the cold light of logic, you can start to see some holes in it.  Some of the highest-paying jobs in the country are in professional sports.  Where are the protests that there aren't any women playing for the Green Bay Packers?  I don't want to start a trend, you understand.  And professional football itself is losing popularity in view of the revelations of long-term brain damage it can cause.  But the point is that many of the assumptions and assertions surrounding issues of gender diversity are based on something besides mathematically exact logic.  And that's a good thing, because logic and undisputed facts can take you only so far.  Something else is needed in order to discuss these matters intelligently:  an ability to articulate the foundations of one's moral judgments.  But these days, that ability is much rarer than the ability to code.

I have read Mr. Damore's memo, and at one point he refers to "moral biases."  Judging from his words, he is neither a political scientist nor a philosopher, but he recognizes that more than logic is required to deal with human-relations issues such as diversity and gender roles.  In his memo, he wrote some things that are undoubtedly unpopular in the Silicon Valley setting of Mountain View:  "On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways."  He cites personality differences that women show compared to men, many of which are positive:  agreeableness, ability to work in teams, and so on.  And he admits that males tend to rank higher on aggressiveness and the willingness to put in long unpleasant hours to get ahead in an organization.  He winds up his memo with a recommendation to "[h]ave an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs." 

It is a matter of public record that Mr. Damore was let go by Google shortly before Aug. 7.  Legally speaking, Google is probably not breaking any law to fire him, as California has what is called "employment at will," which means an employer can fire you at any time for any reason, or no reason at all.  Nevertheless, firing him doesn't contribute to an atmosphere at the company that would encourage an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of diversity programs. 

Along with Mr. Damore's memo, the website Gizmodo posted a statement from Google's diversity officer, in which she said of the memo, "I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender."  But she didn't say what those incorrect assumptions were.

Engineers are trained to be logical, using known facts about the world to create useful products.  But human life is about more than logic and reasoning.  What Mr. Damore calls "moral biases" are really each person's conclusions, drawn from his or her world view, about what constitutes right and wrong.  And while "Googlers" (as they call themselves) may be mental giants when it comes to logic, programming, and the skillful exploitation of the Internet to generate revenue, neither Mr. Damore nor his opponents in the company are able to articulate the bases of their moral principles any better than they could when they were in high school, or perhaps earlier. 

Instead of a reasoned debate based upon clearly expressed moral principles, what happened when Mr. Damore posted his memo was the Internet equivalent of a riot, at which point Google called in their human-resources cops to quell the riot by arresting (firing) the riot's instigator—the cyberspace equivalent of dumping Mr. Damore down a muddy well.  He won't die from it, but he's certainly been soiled in the sight of many.  And it's far from clear that the conservative media outlets which have started to lionize Mr. Damore as a martyr to their causes will encourage meaningful debates about gender diversity either.  Mr. Damore may have left one echo chamber only to walk into another one of a more conservative bent. 

It's possible to have a reasonable, logical debate about gender diversity, but only if everyone can lay their moral cards on the table first.  And these days, we lack the vocabulary and often the courage to do so.

Sources:  I referred to reports about James Damore's firing carried by the San Jose Mercury-News at http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/07/googles-anti-diversity-engineer-should-he-be-fired/ and Bloomberg News at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-08/google-fires-employee-behind-controversial-diversity-memo.  The percentage of women who code is from https://qz.com/814017/the-percentage-of-computing-jobs-in-the-us-held-by-women-is-expected-to-shrink/, and Gizmodo carried Mr. Damore's original memo and the response by Google's diversity officer at http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320.  The story of what happened to Jeremiah after he said unpopular things is in the 38th chapter of the Old Testament book of the same name.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Arkema's Crosby Nightmare: The Price of Ignorance


If you lived within three miles of a chemical plant where dangerous substances were being made or handled, maybe you wouldn't want to know all the details.  But I bet you'd like first responders in the area to know what was there so they could take appropriate actions if anything went wrong. 

Well, Texas is a good place to live in many ways, but about 3,800 people living within a 3-mile radius of the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas probably wish they lived somewhere else right now, that is, if they haven't already evacuated because of the record-breaking floods from Hurricane Harvey.  Because several refrigerated trailers parked at the plant are full of chemicals that must be refrigerated to keep them from exploding.  And as the plant flooded shortly after Harvey hit, the power went out, the trailers started warming up, and one of them has gone up in flames already, sending noxious smoke into the neighborhood and forcing 18 first responders to seek medical attention.  And beyond a few general statements from the plant owners about organic peroxides, the public still doesn't know what is in those trailers.

Here's what apparently happened, as I have gathered from news reports. 

Arkema is a multinational chemical-manufacturing conglomerate based in France.  Its Crosby plant is a few miles northeast of the center of town on U. S. 90, and Crosby is northeast of Houston.  The setting is suburban, not really rural, as the 3,800 people within a 3-mile radius can attest. 

Texans are used to chemical plants.  They provide jobs and tax revenues, and while the smells and other hazards associated with chemical plants are drawbacks, the extreme safety precautions taken by most plant operators mean that millions of dollars' worth of chemicals are produced every day in the state without incident, under normal circumstances.  But Hurricane Harvey was anything but normal.

Organic peroxides are extremely reactive chemicals that are used in the polymerization of plastics, among other processes.  While I am no chemist and don't know any more about them than any other random resident of Crosby, I can well believe that some of them are so reactive that you have to keep them cooler than room temperature or else they will decompose violently, leading to an explosion.  Handling such stuff is a challenge, naturally, sort of like shipping frozen fish around, except instead of spoiling if it warms up, it blows up in your face.  So the plant no doubt has a lot of refrigeration machinery to keep its processes cold enough to preserve the nasty stuff, and refrigerated semi-trailers to take it where it needs to go—namely, other chemical plants that are equipped to keep the chemicals cold until they are used. 

All this has gone on up to now without any major incidents, although Arkema has reportedly been cited by regulators several times in the past for safety infractions.  Then last week came forecasts that Harvey, which was only a tropical depression as late as the Tuesday before it struck, was heading toward the Houston area.

The Arkema operators apparently decided that they ought to shut down the plant and move the existing stock of explosive chemicals off site in trailers.  So at some point before the hurricane hit, they loaded nine refrigerated semi-trailers with volatile chemicals that needed to be kept cool, and connected the refrigeration machinery to the local power utility, which was backed up by emergency power onsite. 

A skeleton crew of 11 stayed through the storm, making sure the power was still on to the trailers and switching to emergency power generators when the local utility power failed.  Then the water started to rise, and on Tuesday Aug. 29, the crew was ordered to evacuate, leaving the trailers behind.  As of today (Sunday, Sept. 3) one trailer has exploded, and the others are expected to go at any time.

At that point, one can question why they didn't take the trailers with them.  A number of reasons come to mind:  (1) they didn't have enough tractors (trucks) to haul them out, (2) the flood waters were so high that it might not have been possible to drive away from the plant in such heavy vehicles, (3) the prospect of dragging potentially explosive stuff all over flooded Houston was worse than leaving it there.  For whatever reason, the crew left the chemicals behind, and shortly thereafter Arkema officials announced that within a few days, the chemicals would of a certainty explode and make quite a mess.

An article in the Austin American-Statesman raises the question of why the contents of the plant have not been made public.  Every such plant has to file what's called a Tier II report detailing the chemicals made or used with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.  But under current law, it's not easy to gain access to that report.  You have to go to special reading rooms in Federal buildings and you can't photocopy them.  After the 2013 ammonium-nitrate explosion in West, Texas that killed more than a dozen people, the Obama administration proposed requiring the Tier II reports to be in a user-friendly format more widely available to the public.  But manufacturers and Texas regulators opposed this proposal, saying that such information could be used by potential terrorists.  And the new EPA administrator under the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt, has agreed to delay the change by at least two years. 

I said it after West and I'll say it again.  It is stupid that a Tier II report, or something like it, is not made available to first responders near any plant which they might reasonably be expected to respond to.  If you can't trust your local firemen to keep a secret, who can you trust?  And to me, the terrorist excuse sounds phony.  The more likely reason companies don't want Tier II reports released to the public is either out of concerns that competitors will use it, or that environmental protest groups will use the presence of certain chemicals to bring pressure to bear to shut the plant down. 

These concerns are legitimate, but they do not outweigh the needs of those sworn to protect the public from harm, to know what they are up against. 

So far, nobody has died as a result of the Arkema plant explosions.  But there are more trailers waiting to go off, and we still don't know what's in them.

Sources:  I referred to reports on the Arkema explosions and hazards that were carried by Houston TV stations at http://abc13.com/arkema-plant-explodes-after-power-loss/2366889/ and https://www.cbsnews.com/news/flames-erupt-at-arkema-chemical-plant-flooded-by-harvey-in-crosby-texas/.  The Sept. 2 print edition of the Austin American-Statesman carried an article by Jeffrey Schwartz entitled "Information scarce on chemical plant blasts," on p. A11.