Monday, September 26, 2016

Fracking and Earthquakes: The Tightest Link Yet

Stanford scientists have found the best evidence so far that injections of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) oil and gas wells definitely cause earthquakes.  The next question is, how will the Texas Railroad Commission and the oil and gas industry respond?  But first, the scientists' study.

As readers of this blog may know, fracking involves the injection of special mixtures of water and proprietary stuff at extremely high pressure into specially drilled wells that penetrate oil- and gas-bearing formations which normally would not produce enough to be worth drilling into.  The producing wells are not the problem.  The problem is that a byproduct of the process is a huge amount of wastewater contaminated with salt, chemicals, and sometimes even radioactive stuff, and these days you don't just dump it out on the ground or into a nearby stream.  The drillers gather it up with tank trucks and ship it to disposal wells, where it is squirted several kilometers deep into rock formations under tremendous pressure. 

It's these disposal wells that seem to be associated with spates of earthquakes in north Texas and Oklahoma, which up to 2000 or so were some of the most earthquake-free areas in the U. S.  Fortunately, most of the earthquakes have been small—around 3 on the "moment magnitude" scale, which replaced the old Richter scale in the 1970s.  But a 4.8-magnitude quake on May 17, 2012 in the East Texas town of Timpson (about halfway between Lufkin and Longview) knocked down a brick wall, and turned out to be the largest such quake ever recorded in that area in recent times. 

Stanford geologist William Ellsworth, working with an international team of geophysicists, remote sensing experts, and others, decided to build a model of the subsurface rocks to see if they could reproduce the conditions that may have led to the earthquake.  Fortunately, that part of Texas is well-understood geologically, and Ellsworth's team obtained data on how much wastewater was injected into two pairs of wells, each at a different depth.  They also found and enhanced satellite-radar data that can measure movement at the earth's surface as slight as 1 millimeter per year.  They put all this data into a "poroelastic layered Earth model," meaning they accounted for porosity and elasticity—how holey and how flexible the rocks are.  They also knew about existing faults, and ran their model to predict both how much the surface might bulge after getting some 800,000 cubic meters of wastewater injected into it per year for several years.  Then they compared their model's predicted bulge to the measured bulge, which was several centimeters, and got pretty good agreement between their model and the actual satellite data.

That told them that another number their model produced—the increase in pore pressure—was also probably right.  When pore pressure increases by about 10 times atmospheric pressure (1 megapascal or more), this has been shown to cause earthquakes.  The mechanics are complicated, and I'm not a mechanical engineer.  Basically, the reason fault lines under pressure don't slip is that there is a lot of force squeezing the two sides together, and the resulting friction keeps things stationary.  But when you have increased pore pressure on the order of 1 megapascal, that somehow decreases the squeezing force and the thing starts to slip.  And slip it did, causing Timpson's quake and others.

Although most of the bulging occurred around the eastern pair of wells, the western wells were where the earthquake happened.  Ellsworth's team could explain this by citing differences in the porosity and elasticity of the rocks around each set of wells. 

So the scientists have made a model of the rocks under Timpson, injected their rock model with wastewater, and observed both a surface bulge that matches what satellites actually measured, and noted pore-pressure changes of a size that is known to cause earthquakes elsewhere.  And in fact, an earthquake happened.  Looks pretty conclusive to me.  But I'm not a Texas Railroad Commissioner.

What have railroads got to do with oil and gas production?  It's a long story, but basically, the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC), which originally did regulate railroads, backed into the business of granting permits for oil and gas production in the 1930s, and as time went on nobody has had the temerity to change its name.  It apparently did some useful work in the 1930s by putting the brakes on absurd overproduction and keeping oil prices from vanishing.  Nowadays, its regulatory duties are different, and involve environmental concerns as well as the usual support and encouragement of the industry it is charged with regulating. 

In reports describing the Stanford study, attempts by reporters to get a reaction out of the TRC were initially unsuccessful.  The Commission's mission statement has three bullets, saying it serves Texas through (1) "our stewardship of natural resources and the environment" (2)  "our concern for personal and community safety" and (3) "our support of enhanced development and economic vitality for the benefit of Texans."  Judging by the Commission's past reluctance to admit any causal link between fracking and earthquakes, their mission statement's bottom line, about enhancing development and economic vitality, appears to be taking precedence over the other two items, just as a company's bottom line tends to take precedence over other concerns.

Ellsworth and company have confirmed what many other geologists, as well as numbers of ordinary citizens, have been suspecting for a long time.  Most, if not all, of the increased earthquake activity in regions near wastewater injection wells can probably be attributed to those wells. 

By and large, Texans are reasonable people.  Fracking has been an economic blessing to many parts of the state, and it's unlikely that anything like the blanket fracking bans in New York and Maryland could happen here.  But now that there is reasonably good evidence of the connection between wastewater wells and earthquakes, it would only be reasonable for people who have lost property or been injured in such events to ask for compensation from the owners of the wells.  Of course, any time lawyers get involved, reason may fly out the window, but I think we can work these issues out without either continuing to deny that there's any association at all, or saying that fracking is an invention of the Devil and must be abolished from the planet.  Let's hope so, anyway.

Sources:  I referred to a report published online by the Dallas Observer on Sept. 23, 2016 at, one in the Dallas Morning News at, and the paper by M. Shirzaei, W. L. Ellsworth, K. F. Tiampo, P. J. González, and M. Manga, "Surface uplift and time-dependent seismic hazard due to fluid injection in eastern Texas," Science, vol. 353, Issue 6306, pp. 1416-1419, as well as the Texas Railroad Commission website

Monday, September 19, 2016

Time To Make Airbags Optional?

For at least a couple of years, we have known that certain airbag inflators made by the Japanese firm Takata have been exploding like small bombs, sending shrapnel into drivers and passengers who otherwise would almost certainly have survived the collisions that set off the airbags.  A recent investigative article published in the New York Times says that at least fourteen people have died as a result of exploding airbags.  There's no good way to die, but getting killed by a defective safety device has to be one of the worst.  And especially if the company making the things was doing a coverup to keep selling them, as the Times reports.

The coverup was revealed in testimony taken as part of a lawsuit filed by Honda against Takata.  The active chemical in many Takata inflators is ammonium nitrate (AN), the same stuff that was responsible for the explosion in West, Texas in 2013.  One of the main attractions of AN is that it's cheap, which is one reason that Takata has historically been so successful in beating out competitive inflator companies.  But AN easily absorbs water and can undergo changes when subjected to heat or humidity that make it much more likely to detonate when ignited.  There's a difference between fast controlled burning, which is what an inflator is supposed to do, and detonation, which is a practically instantaneous explosion that will shatter almost any container.  And preventing AN from detonating involves keeping all moisture away from it for as long as it's in the car, which can be many years. 

Accordingly, automakers buying Takata inflators insisted that the company do very sensitive leak tests of its containers.  These tests involved injecting a certain amount of helium gas into a container before sealing it, and then putting the whole thing in a vacuum chamber attached to a helium mass spectrometer that can detect only a few molecules of helium, which ordinarily is not present in sea-level air.  It's a great system when it's not abused.  But the only problem was that the containers being tested at Takata's plant in LaGrange, Georgia, kept flunking. 

So the engineers decided to fudge the results.  They pumped down the vacuum chamber several times, "testing" the same container repeatedly until it ran out of helium.  Then they checked it off as passing, put new bar codes on it to conceal what they'd done, and reported that the container passed.  One engineer involved in this scheme complained to his manager about the deception, and was told "not to come back to any more meetings."  He subsequently quit the company.

Up till now, it looked like the worst that Takata was guilty of was gross incompetence, but now there is evidence of outright fraud. 

When I blogged about this matter in 2014, I fully disclosed that both of the cars my wife and I drive are affected by the airbag recall.  We are certainly not alone.  It now looks like over sixty million of the suspect inflators are out there somewhere, and at least nine separate carmakers are struggling to manage the most massive and nightmarish recall in automotive history.  Right now I am waiting to hear from our local Honda dealer about a recall notice we received for our Element last July, telling us that the passenger-side inflator was suspect and we should get it replaced.  Only, they didn't have replacement parts yet, so in the meantime, try not to let anybody sit there.  Now and then I still live dangerously and sit in the passenger seat anyway.  I can only imagine what this has done to the resale value of the vehicle.  So we'll hang onto it until Honda gets a replacement inflator for it.  But I'm not exactly happy to learn from the Times article that the replacement inflator may use ammonium nitrate too.

This whole sad situation brings up a question that was supposedly settled back in the 1990s, when airbags became mandatory on new cars in the U. S.  Can we afford the incremental added protection airbags provide in the light of the hassle, and now hazards, they involve? 

In a calculation performed back in 2005, a writer at the libertarian website Freakonomics claimed that he'd figured out how much it costs to save a life with a seatbelt versus an airbag.  I don't know the details of his calculations, but the results are astonishing.  Seatbelts are pretty cost-effective as safety devices go.  It's about $30,000 to save a life with a seatbelt.  Airbags?  Not so much.  They are vastly more complicated and are effective mainly in head-on collisions.  So the cost to save a life with an airbag is—fasten your seatbelt—$1.8 million.  Now this fellow said that $1.8 million still isn't bad by regulatory standards.  If it was my life saved by an airbag, I would be glad that somebody, somewhere spent that $1.8 million.  But that calculation was done before the massive airbag recall happened, and so you would have to add on to that figure however many millions of dollars have been spent by the automakers on the recall, not to mention the time, anxiety, and waste associated with such recalls.  And the isolated but not negligible accidents involving deaths or injuries directly attributable to airbags.  I've heard that some people have simply stopped driving cars with defective airbags.  This is a little extreme, but if you have another car you can use, I can understand.

It has always seemed a little dubious to me to install shock-triggered explosive charges in cars, even if they are proved to be a lifesaving measure.  And now we have even more reason to wonder whether it might not be a bad idea to make airbag use optional.  Because even properly working airbags can be hazardous to small children, I believe some cars were equipped to turn off airbags if the weight of a child was detected on the corresponding seat.  The way things are now, if I knew how to disable the airbags in my cars, I'd do it, but they're so complicated nowadays I'd have to go to half a year of technician school and even then I'd probably end up setting the thing off when I tried to disconnect it.  You shouldn't have to be qualified as a bomb disarmer to work on your own car, but that's the way it is these days.

In the meantime, let's hope that whoever is making the replacement airbag inflators does a really good job this time, and the millions of car owners around the world driving around with potential bombs can get rid of them.  But maybe it's time to reconsider the whole question of whether using airbags is something that a government should order you to do, or something that is best left to the decision of the consumer.

Sources:  The article "A Cheaper Airbag, and Takata's Road to a Deadly Crisis" by Hiroko Tabuchi appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016 online edition of the New York Times at  I also referred to a useful website where updates on the crisis over the last two years have been collected, at  The Freakonomics piece appeared at, and my previous blog on this subject appeared on Oct. 27, 2014 at

Monday, September 12, 2016

Alternatives to Facebook: The Mondragon Solution

Whatever it is, Facebook is the largest of its kind in the world.  Having surpassed by its own measures the one-billionth-user mark in 2012 after only eight years in existence, it can boast that about one out of every seven people on Earth is a Facebook user.  (Just to get this out of the way, yours truly isn't one of them, but my wife is, and I trust her to tell me anything she sees on it that I need to know.)  Depending on your point of view, the fact that Facebook connects that many people—in principle, at least—is either one of the greatest communications achievements of all time, or a threatening sign that a private corporation now holds tremendous power over the lives of more people than most governments do.  This being an ethics blog, I'd like to look at the potential downside for a moment.

As thinkers all the way back to Aristotle have recognized, mankind is a social animal.  What others think and say about us is of vital, even fundamental, importance.  And if a significant part of one's social life takes place through media such as Facebook, social media become more than just one of a number of things you do, like gardening on weekends.  It becomes a near-essential part of your life, especially if you are younger.  A co-worker recently told me about a surprising result of a survey of college-age job seekers.  When asked if they would work for a company that prohibited them from using Facebook on the job, a substantial number of them said no.  As I haven't been able to track down the original survey, this may be an urban legend, but it rings true.

But the essential sometimes becomes the impossible.  I have known several people who have gotten so much grief from people commenting on their Facebook posts that they have quit using it altogether, either temporarily or permanently.  In the more extreme cases, otherwise responsible people have been forced out of jobs for actions which are entirely legal but go crossways to the opinions of large groups—or should I say "mobs"—who enact the online equivalent of a lynching.  As just one example, I can cite the case of Brendan Eich, developer of the JavaScript programming language, who became CEO of Mozilla Corporation in March of 2014.  Within days, an online tweet revealing that he had contributed $1000 to the California Proposition 8 campaign banning same-sex marriage led to an online shaming campaign by gay activists and ultimately his resignation, less than two weeks after taking the job.  And there have been rare but widely reported cases of cyberbullying (not necessarily involving Facebook) leading teens to commit suicide. 

Here's where Mondragon comes in.  In 1956, students at a Spanish technical college founded by a Catholic priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta formed a company that was eventually named after the town where it was based, Mondragón.  This company was not organized along the usual capitalist-ownership lines.  It was a co-operative enterprise and purposely incorporated the principle of subsidiarity, which is a concept from Catholic social teaching that says basically, if you can do it locally, do it locally.  From a humble beginning as a kerosene-stove factory, the Mondragon organization has grown to be one of the largest employers in the Basque part of Spain, and still substantially adheres to the principle of worker ownership, although not every single employee automatically gets a share of the company's profits (or losses, as the case may be). 

In a recent issue of the journal of technology and society The New Atlantis, Baylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs makes the following proposition:  "If instead of thinking of the Internet in statist terms we apply the logic of subsidiarity, we might be able to imagine the digital equivalent of a Mondragon cooperative."  That may require a little unpacking.

By "statist," I think Jacobs means that vast outfits like Facebook take on the nature of a nation more than a company. In fact, elsewhere in the same article he refers to Facebook as "a state—a Hobbesian state."  More unpacking:  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was famous for writing Leviathan, in which he argued that societies form political communities because the alternative was dog-eat-dog chaos in which life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  In exchange for the modicum of protection that belonging to society provides, we agree to let go of certain kinds of freedom or autonomy—in the case of Facebook, you are trusting the organization with highly personal things such as photographs, death notices, and other pieces of yourself. 

In the space I have left, I can only sketch out what a Mondragon-cooperative Facebook-like entity would be like.  For one thing, the money it made would return to the users.  For another thing, it would be a lot smaller than Facebook.  And it might connect only people who are really and truly friends (or relatives), not just some random person who happens by your Facebook site and thinks you are clever, stupid, or whatever. 

As far as I know, there is no fundamental technical barrier to making such an entity.  Right here in my neighborhood, people use some email-related software to send messages to others within a few blocks, and it's already done me a lot more good than Facebook.  The thing Facebook has going for it is the famous leverage of the network effect, first discovered by the telephone companies around 1900.  Because the addition of one more user to a network costs only one unit (say) and leads to everybody on the network having one more person to talk with, economists argue that costs in a network go as N and the value of the network goes as N squared.  While this might have been true in the early days of hardwired networks and has become a universally-assumed truism today, it is not clear to me that with modern software capabilities that old rule still applies.  Of course, real friends and relatives can be nasty too, but at least in the case of a Mondragon-like social media network, the damage would be much more limited.

A pipe dream?  Maybe.  But I think it's worth considering.

Sources:  Alan Jacobs' article "Attending to Technology:  Theses for Disputation" (pp. 16-45) appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of The New Atlantis.  I referred to a website detailing six cyberbullying suicides at and the Wikipedia articles on Facebook, Brendan Eich, and the network effect.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Exploding Galaxies: How To Do a Recall Right

These are stirring times in the mobile phone market.  Samsung's long-awaited Galaxy Note 7, called by some a "phablet" because of its larger size and expanded capabilities that compare with some tablet devices, was launched in many markets only a few weeks ago.  Apple is shortly to launch the iPhone 7 in hopes of reviving its flagging presence in the mobile phone business.  And just last Friday (Sept. 2), Samsung announced that it was recalling all Galaxy Note 7s sold in many markets because of reports of exploding batteries.

The high-tech consumer-product business today is competitive, fast-paced, and exquisitely sensitive to customer attitudes.  So when a serious and potentially hazardous problem crops up in a consumer product, a company's response can make or break the product, and even the company itself. 

Samsung is facing a major challenge, in that the exploding batteries could hardly come at a worse time.  New product releases are what consumer-hardware firms like Samsung survive on, and today's gotta-have-the-latest-and-greatest consumers demand them as often as advancing research and development can supply them.  But every new design is fraught with potential risks:  new suppliers, new technologies, and unexplored pushes on the design envelope.  As power-hungry processors in consumer devices demand more energy, the batteries have to keep up.  And while lithium batteries (presumably the type in the Samsung Galaxy 7) are by now entitled to be called a mature technology, they have a stubborn habit of reverting to the spoiled-bratdom of spectacular fiery failures, which according to Samsung has happened in at least 35 cases, though apparently no one has been killed or injured as a result.

So far, Samsung appears to have handled this crisis in an exemplary way.  Here are three things they have done right:

1)  Samsung acted quickly.  The phone rollout was still taking place in many countries, and began only a few weeks ago in others, in late August.  So it's likely that no consumer on the planet has had one for more than a few weeks.  When the fires began, Samsung evidently has an efficient reporting system, perhaps using direct-to-consumer complaint lines and investigative teams, that got the bad news straight to the top of the firm fast.  And upper management didn't hem and haw and try to deny things at first.  They were the first to announce roughly how many known failures there were (around 35, out of several million sold so far), even before social media and other outlets had much of a chance to report the incidents independently.  And they announced their actions in response to the problem simultaneously with admitting there was a problem.

2) Samsung acted decisively.  They halted sales worldwide of the affected models.  (Apparently the ones sold in China use a different battery that has so far shown no problems, so that market is unaffected.)  And they promised that anyone who has bought a new Galaxy 7 with the problem battery will get a new one in exchange.  Period.  These are costly measures—they involve lost revenue from the hoped-for successful launch of the expensive phones (which retail in the US for about $700 each), and the hassle of exchanging suspect phones for new ones.  Samsung will probably be setting up a massive recycling operation in the coming weeks to replace bad batteries with good ones, or at least to recover usable parts from the returned phones.  At any rate, the recall is a headache of huge proportions.  But Samsung's management decided it had to be done.

3)  Samsung told the truth.  As far as we know, Samsung has been entirely transparent and forthcoming about the nature of the problem.  As I pointed out, their list of 35 battery failures is longer than any investigative reporter's list.  Their information-gathering processes allowed management to get all the relevant facts quickly and report them to the public along with their actions in response.  This is refreshing corporate behavior when compared to the way some firms have handled recall problems.  The worst recent example is that of Volkswagen, which knowingly tampered with emissions-control software in its diesel-engined cars to fool government inspectors while polluting much more than the regulations allowed, and then denied anything was wrong for months before independent investigators contradicted the company's claims. 

Samsung still faces a rocky road in the coming weeks.  Apple is soon to release its iPhone 7, and if Samsung can't supply the market for Galaxy 7s fast enough it may lose some of its leading market share to Apple.  But that is the nature of the consumer-market game.  It's like a horserace that never ends, with this horse nosing out that horse for a while, and new horses coming in and old ones falling by the wayside.

In the midst of such fierce competition, it's easy to lose track of underlying priorities and, if you'll pardon the expression, eternal truths.  Engineering tends to encourage compartmentalized thinking among some people.  Engineers are usually pretty organized types, and it's easy to think of one's life as sorted neatly into work, play, personal life, and a little dusty box in the corner labeled "morality." 

But engineering ethics doesn't work if it's treated as just one more specialized topic like Laplace transforms.  When you need to do a Laplace transform, you haul out the tables or the software and do it, and the rest of the time you don't have to think about them.  But ethics isn't like that.  In the best case, one's ethics is the outgrowth of one's character, of deeply-ingrained habits of thought and behavior that guide actions. 

In the case of a large corporation, the question of ethics is even more complicated.  A firm's culture is like an individual's character.  In a company with an ethical culture (not to be confused with the quasi-religion called Ethical Culture), certain acts are the kind of thing that will cause people to say, "We don't do that here."  I don't know much about Samsung, although they do have a facility in Austin and we have sent several graduates of our Texas State University engineering program to work there, apparently with good results.  But to judge by Samsung's actions in response to the exploding Galaxy 7 phones, the firm has done the right thing so far, and I hope it keeps up the good work when the next crisis comes along.

Sources:  I referred to articles on the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall in the Huffington Post at and the Telegraph (UK) at, the latter of which carried Samsung's statement about the recall verbatim. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Will Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications Ever Get On the Road?

With all the recent attention on self-driving cars occasioned by the first fatality involving such vehicles, the advent of "talking cars"—cars that communicate wirelessly via vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications—has taken a back seat, so to speak.  But V2V ultimately promises to be a vital link in the chain of technologies that will make driverless vehicles possible, as well as making ordinary human-driven cars safer. 

The basic idea is this.  Each V2V-equipped vehicle has a transmitter and receiver that operate in a 5.9-GHz (microwave) wireless band.  By one proposed standard, each car transmits its location, speed, direction, and other relevant data ten times a second to any other car in a thousand-yard (~910-meter) radius.  Other cars equipped with V2V can use this data to keep pace as a following vehicle, or to avoid a collision with a car that is still out of visual sight—around a corner, for instance—but on a collision course.  Some government experts estimate that if every vehicle on the road was equipped with V2V, the number of accidents not related to impaired drivers (alcohol, etc.) could be reduced by as much as 80%.  So what's the holdup? A couple of things.

First it turns out that, according to a recent Associated Press report, the main federal agency boosting V2V and prescribing an industry standard for it is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is now locked in a battle with another agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The bone in this dogfight is the microwave band that V2V needs to use.  The FCC, leaned on by powerful wireless-comm companies, wants to reallocate that part of the spectrum for wireless internet users.  But a recent technical paper examined the tradeoffs involved in reducing the bandwidth used by V2V, and showed that even the currently contemplated 75 MHz of spectrum might not be wide enough to allow virtually error-free transmission, which is what is needed in this safety-critical application.

Aside from the radio-spectrum issue, there is a question of security.  The NHTSA has had enough imagination to build in a complex security protocol for V2V.  You can easily think of ways to use V2V nefariously.  For example, crooks in an escape car being chased by cops could use a false V2V signal to tell the cop car that it's about to have a head-on collision, and the cops would slam on the brakes—if they trusted what the car told them.  This assumes that the V2V information is used only as warnings to the driver, but sooner or later automakers are going to take the driver out of the loop and allow the V2V information to be used directly by the car's control mechanisms—brakes, steering, accelerator, etc. 

So in order to prevent such shenanigans, the NHTSA has devised a complicated security system that involves digital certificates, public-key infrastructure encryption, and a lot of other things that apparently have never been combined in such an elaborate way before.  It's nice that they have thought to make each car anonymous and to ensure that potential hackers will have lots of trouble hijacking the system, but even the NHTSA itself admits they haven't worked all the bugs out of this security process yet.

The closest analogy I can think of between the proposed V2V system and anything we have now is the air-traffic control system that uses active transponders on each aircraft.  The need for security in air-traffic control is a lot less, because there are a lot fewer planes than there are cars, the Federal Aviation Administration is looking over the airlines' shoulder all the time, and there was already an extensive radar-based air-traffic control system in place before the transponders were added.  With V2V, there is no centralized control, only a lot of cars talking with each other, so the technical challenge is harder.

Even if the automakers started selling V2V-equipped cars tomorrow, it would be twenty years, by some estimates, before nearly all cars on the road would be so equipped.  And until then you couldn't count on doing things with V2V such as traveling in closely-spaced packs or caravans on freeways, because even one non-V2V car in the pack would throw everything off. 

Still, if auto insurers find that V2V-equipped vehicles really do get involved in accidents at a significantly lower rate, they're likely to offer insurance discounts for such cars.  And while consumer behavior is not entirely predictable, buying a car that automatically lowers your insurance rate would be a strong incentive for car buyers to upgrade to V2V sooner rather than later.  However, the insurance companies aren't going to do that until they have a few years of data to base their price tables on.  And that won't happen till there's a significant deployment of V2V-equipped cars.  So we have a chicken-and-egg problem. 

Close to thirty years ago now, right after digital ICs capable of generating voice-quality audio came out, the car makers experimented with another kind of talking car.  If you sat down and didn't fasten your seat belt, this woman's voice came out of nowhere and nagged you to fasten it.  That kind of talking car quickly disappeared.  The V2V idea shows promise of making cars a lot safer without a lot of complexity added, except for the system issues involved with spectrum allocation and security.  I hope that the two fighting executive-branch agencies can work out a reasonable compromise so that people can both stream video as much as they want (or are willing to pay for), and drive in safer cars.  But so far, we're not there yet.

Sources:  The Associated Press article "Auto tech industries clash over future of talking cars" was carried in the print edition of the Austin American-Statesman of Aug. 27, 2016, and appeared in other venues such as the Aug. 25 online edition of the Los Angeles Times at  I also referred to a technical paper by Lei Shi and Ki Wong Sung, "Spectrum Requirement for Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication for Traffic Safety," available at, and articles on V2V security at

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is Bioscience Spinning Its Wheels?

Each year, the U. S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) alone spends over $30 billion on medical research.  The people who decide which scientists get this money are, unsurprisingly, scientists.  Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University, thinks that we are no longer getting the bangs we should get for all these bucks.  In an article in the spring/summer 2016 issue of The New Atlantis, he explains why.

First off, he admits that spending lots of money on scientific research and development has historically been a great idea.  If you compare how most people in the U. S. lived in 1900 with the way things are done in 2000, most of the good differences—modern medicine, jet aircraft, cars, air conditioning, the Internet, wireless devices, computers, down to electric toothbrushes—are due to technological innovations that grew out of research directed at certain goals.  And Sarewitz has no problem with that.  The federal government was not a big player in research prior to World War II, but the lessons we learned then about how heavy investments in military technologies such as radar and nuclear weapons could pay off led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

The NSF was the brainchild of MIT engineer Vannevar Bush, who directed most government-funded research during the war.  Sarewitz says that in order to get his idea enacted, Bush told "a beautiful lie," and summarizes the lie this way:  "Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown."  Sarewitz spends the rest of his article showing just what was wrong about this "lie," and how it has led to inefficient and often simply incorrect research that taxpayers (and corporations too, for that matter) are paying billions for today.

In support of his thesis, he cites studies showing the increasing rate of retractions from peer-reviewed research journal in recent years.  Another source indicates that between 75 and 90 percent of all basic and preclinical biomedical studies are not reproducible. 

These are indicators of a general trend or pattern that goes something like this.  A newly minted Ph. D. in one of the softer sciences (economics, sociology, psychology, biology) gets an academic job and has to produce new and original results that are published in peer-reviewed journals or get fired in five or six years.  (That part I'm very familiar with.)  So he writes tons of proposals to NIH or wherever he can get funding, gets ten to fifteen percent of his proposals funded, and sets to work being novel.  Novel about what?  Well, that almost doesn't matter.  As long as you can show you did something that nobody's done before, and it has some remote tenuous connection with reality, you can find a journal and willing referees to publish it.  There's more Internet-based journals popping up every year, and it's almost to the point that you can get anything published if you send it to enough journals.  Multiply this picture by the thousands of Ph. D.'s we produce every year, and bear in mind that their proposals and papers are being reviewed by people who went through the very same system, and you can see how the situation described by Sarewitz can happen. 

So what should we be doing with all that money?  Sarewitz says it should be spent on highly directed research targeted at specific time-limited goals.  He cites several examples of the way it ought to be done, including a program in the 1990s directed by the U. S. Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a new treatment for breast cancer.  It led to the development of the drug herceptin, one of the most important treatment innovations in years.  The point here is that useful innovations based on science typically happen not when some isolated scientist pursues his or her private dream, but when a team of smart people use both existing and new science and engineering to pursue a specific socially profitable goal. 

Sarewitz congratulates the DOD for its no-nonsense approach to getting such things done, and for including in its project planning people without academic qualifications, but with a strong interest in the goal.  One of the sparkplugs that got the herceptin project going was an activist named Fran Visco, herself a breast cancer survivor, who founded the National Breast Cancer Coalition to do something about better treatments.  She was a lawyer, not a biologist, but the DOD welcomed her as a participant and her vision was essential in getting things done. 

In pointing out that much research today, especially in the biomedical area, doesn't seem to accomplish much more than paying for a lot of expensive professors, postdocs, grad students, and equipment, I think Sarewitz is on the money, so to speak.  However, I disagree with him that Vannevar Bush told "a beautiful lie" to get the NSF going. 

If you genuinely believe that what you say at the time is true, it isn't a lie, morally speaking.  You may be guilty of self-deception or not informing yourself sufficiently, but not of lying.  Bush was a creature of his time, and most of the people he had hired to develop things like radar and nuclear bombs had in fact spent most of their careers indulging the "free play of their free intellects," because that was the main way basic science was pursued before huge amounts of federal dollars showed up after World War II.  Most scientists before 1941 operated more or less in the style of Albert Einstein, who single-handedly revolutionized physics in his spare time that his job at the Swiss patent office provided him.  Back then, the exception was a scientist who did good science while working for industry, such as Irving Langmuir, the first industrial scientist to win a Nobel Prize.  So although the phrase "beautiful lie" is an attention-getting rhetorical device, I think Sarewitz is a little anachronistic in his accusation that Bush was lying at the time.

On the other hand, Sarewitz is probably right in pointing out that the foxes-guarding-the-henhouse pattern of handing money over to scientists who give it to other scientists may not be the right way to do things anymore, at least with the majority of federal research funds.  There's a reason that government funding for science is declining as a percent of GNP, and the public may be right in thinking that their federal research dollars are not being spent as wisely as they could be.  If the powers that are or will be listen to Sarewitz's advice, maybe things will be reorganized so that even fewer dollars can accomplish more, both in the way of pure basic science and in practical applications that improve the lives of millions.

Sources:  Daniel Sarewitz's article "Saving Science" appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of The New Atlantis, and online at  For the statistic on NIH spending, I referred to the NIH website at  Full disclosure:  my wife had breast cancer over a decade ago, and is now cancer-free

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Spirit of Engineering: Ulysses Cephas

Some years ago, probably in the late 1940s—the news clipping has no date on it—an 18-year-old woman attending what was then called  Southwest Texas State Teachers' College in San Marcos was seriously injured in an automobile accident, suffering a broken pelvis.  She was taken to a hospital, but became despondent, and her attending doctor decided she should spend her long recovery at home in Hico, 150 miles away.  But the jarring of a long road trip might cause further injuries.  Some sort of rigid custom-made frame to hold her bones in place was needed, but where could such a thing be found?

The photo accompanying the article shows the solution:  a sort of cage made of three or four steel straps attached to a stretcher.  The article gives the names of the young woman and the doctor, but identifies the craftsman who designed and fabricated the frame only as "the village blacksmith."  Thus encased, she was able to be transported safely to Hico, thanks to the village blacksmith.  Probably everyone who read the article in the San Marcos local paper knew who the village blacksmith was.  He lived in a house he built himself, worked in a shop he owned, and had the skills to construct a custom medical device that today would cost many thousands of dollars to make.  Why, then, was the newspaper so reticent about giving his name?  We can only speculate at this point, but I can think of one good reason.  Ulysses Cephas was black.

Mr. Cephas was born in San Marcos in 1884 to Joe and Elizabeth Cephas, both former slaves.  Joe was a blacksmith, and Ulysses followed in his father's footsteps.  Around 1909, Ulysses had acquired enough skills to obtain a certificate in Artistic Horseshoeing, and that was the extent of his formal education.  He married and built a small, sturdy house in the black section of San Marcos.  San Marcos, along with the rest of Texas back then, was a segregated society.  Blacks could live only in the black section of town.  Blacks could sit only in the black section of movie theaters, if the theater happened to have such a section.  It was a common sight to see hotels, restrooms, and even water fountains labeled with signs such as "For Whites Only" or the less direct but just as effective "We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To Anyone." 

Mr. Cephas, if he did not embrace these restrictions, at any rate lived within them.  He, along with the rest of the black community, endured the rise of the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.  After some Klan doings that were so bad they drew the attention of the local law authorities, the police asked Mr. Cephas if he could identify certain horseshoe prints left at the scene.  Mr. Cephas was able to connect the prints with one of his own customers, which led to an arrest of the culprit.  Even the Klan came to "Boots" Cephas for horseshoes.

By 1933, Mr. Cephas had saved enough to buy the blacksmith shop he worked in, while supporting his five children.  As if that wasn't enough, he became active in the First Missionary Baptist Church and helped found the San Marcos Independent Band.  But he kept busy working in his shop, as pages from his account book from 1944 attest.  They include things like repairing wagon wheels, drilling holes in iron plates, welding a battery box for the local phone company, and renovating pieces of farm equipment for local farmers.  By that time, his shop was what we would term today a general metal fabrication facility, and his reputation for being able to deal with almost any problem was what led the young woman's doctor to him when the special frame was needed.

There is a photo of Mr. Cephas at work:  a sturdy, overalls-clad man caught in the midst of swinging a heavy hammer—an engineer's hammer, is the technical term.  Along with the photo, another news article quotes him as saying that when he passes from the scene, there won't be anyone to replace him.  Young people these days aren't interested in the hot, heavy work of blacksmithing, he says.  This was well before air conditioning was installed in most small-town businesses, let alone residences or blacksmith shops. 

Mr. Cephas died in 1952, with $10,000 in the bank, rental property in hand, and owing only a keg of nails.  His house stood vacant for years until the City of San Marcos, prompted by those interested in black history, used federal funds to renovate it and turn it into a multi-use space for things like art classes, which is how I found out about the house and Mr. Cephas's story—my wife was attending an art class that I visited last Friday.  Artifacts from his life and work are on display there, and the house itself is a testimony to the skill he brought to his work—the original door and doorknob from the 1920s are still in use. 

Ethical exemplars are people whose professional conduct goes beyond the call of duty to the point where they can be held up as examples of how to do it right.  Mr. Cephas's skin color and birth date barred him from any realistic hopes of gaining an engineering education.  Most of the few colleges open to blacks back then had no engineering schools, and even if they had, the need for tuition money was an obstacle that few black students could overcome.  So he took his certificate in artistic horseshoeing and taught himself everything else he needed to know to serve the community of his birth, even when it turned on him viciously as the KKK did.  His unique skills allowed him to be prosperous in a modest way, and he gave back in terms of service to his church and to the citizens at large who enjoyed the music he and his friends played at special events.  In his life of integrity and service, he showed how a professional—one with specialized knowledge—can use this knowledge responsibly to make the world a better place.  That is what engineering should be all about, and though he lacked the usual academic credentials, I salute Ulysses Cephas as one who embodied in his life and work the true spirit of engineering. 

Sources:  There is a historical marker in front of Mr. Cephas' former home, and a photograph thereof can be seen at  I also used information from news articles at and  Some of the information in the above post is from my memory of artifacts, and may be slightly inaccurate in a few details.