Monday, October 20, 2014

Handling Ebola Patients: An Engineering Problem

Two nurses who treated the late Ebola-virus victim Thomas Eric Duncan have been diagnosed with Ebola virus as well.  They treated him at the Texas Health Presbyterian Center hospital in Dallas, where he died on October 8 after traveling there from Liberia, where he acquired the virus.  Despite apparently following the protocols recommended by the U. S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) for dealing with patients with Ebola, nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson are now being treated for the disease as well.  Their chances are grim:  the death rate from the virus can be as high as 50%. 

Besides all that, one could be excused from believing that nothing else is going on in the U. S. right now except the Ebola virus, at least judging from the media coverage in Texas.  If there is a futures market in Clorox, now's your chance.

We are used to thinking of technology only in terms of hardware, or maybe hardware and software.  But engineering designs can center around people and their behavior too.  The elaborate protocols and procedures that integrated-circuit manufacturers follow are just as essential to making their chips as the silicon is.  A roomful of advanced medical equipment is just so much scrap metal without the people and plans and procedures that can use them effectively.  And just as machines can be well or poorly designed, so can protocols.

Let's look at two protocols.  One is posted on the CDC website under the title "Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Hospitalized Patients with Known or Suspected Ebola Virus Disease in U.S. Hospitals."  That's pretty clear.  What do they say about personal protective equipment for the nurses and other personnel who care for Ebola patients?  It's pretty simple:  a face mask, eye protection (goggles or a face shield), gloves, and a gown ("fluid resistant or impermeable").  I don't know about you, but if I was within a few feet of a potential source of fluid that had a good chance of giving me a deadly illness, I would want to be covered by something more substantial than a "fluid-resistant" gown.

Now, let's consider another set of protocols.  In an editorial in the Oct. 16 Austin American-Statesman, critical care physician Bryan Fisk recalls the protocol he used when he was in charge of a Biosafety Level 4 Patient Isolation Suite at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.  This was a military facility designed to handle patients with diseases as dangerous as Ebola.  What kind of personal protective equipment did they use at this facility?  "[F]ully encapsulated positive-pressure protective suits with a tethered air supply."  In other words, a diving suit without the water.  Not only were they trained to do all sorts of procedures—intubation, catheterization—while wearing these undoubtedly cumbersome outfits.  Once they left the isolation unit, they underwent a complete chemical scrubdown while still wearing the suits, with the aid of other technicians.  And as long as they were treating the patient and for the length of the incubation period afterwards, they were confined to on-site quarters and not allowed to leave until there was no chance that they had acquired the virus.

There are reportedly about four of these types of isolation units in the U. S.  Understandably, they are more expensive than the standard emergency-room or intensive-care isolation units maintained by even the best public hospitals.  But in view of the fact that the CDC protocols, even if followed, fall far short of what the U. S. military does when dealing with Ebola-type situations, it's hard to resist the temptation to repeat an old consulting-engineer saying. 

The story goes that one day a consulting engineer gets a call from a factory manager where things are going haywire.  He flies out to the site, walks around a half hour or so, and then motions for the manager to come into a private office with him.  He sits down and says to the manager, "Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you're getting."  In other words, you should not expect a badly designed protocol to deliver good results.

Fortunately, nurse Nina Pham has been transferred to a National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases isolation unit in Bethesda, Maryland.  I was unable to find any information on the protocols for protecting healthcare workers in that unit, but one hopes that it is better than the CDC's bare minimum. 

The perception of competence can be as important as actual competence.  Doctors and medical-care workers are some of the most trusted professionals in society, and when a scary thing like an Ebola case happens, the presumption is that those in charge will follow the best practices available to ensure that the disease doesn't spread.  With the failure of Texas Health Presbyterian Center to use adequate protocols, whether due to thinking that the CDC knew what it was talking about or otherwise, that trust has been severely damaged, and the word "panic" has started to show up in news items on the virus.  Professionals can be excessively reluctant to second-guess other professionals, but in this case it looks like it would have been better for someone in authority to order the Texas hospital to send Duncan to a military or equivalent-quality isolation unit the instant it became clear he was infected.  He might have died anyway, but we would have avoided any possibility that Ebola carriers were running around in public and flying in planes, which is the situation we face now.

Realistically, the risk of catching Ebola for the average person in the U. S. is virtually no higher than it was a month ago, which was approximately zero.  But already, serious damage has been done to the medical profession's reputation, and it will be some time before the fears of Ebola subside.  We can get there sooner if every organization involved with Ebola fully acknowledges the seriousness of the problem and spends the money and resources necessary to deal with it safely—or else admits they can't do it and defers to an organization that can. 

Sources:  Dr. Bryan Fisk's article "We need to send Ebola patients to U. S. disease-isolation facilities," appeared in the Oct. 16 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, p. A10.  The CDC's recommended protocol for Ebola appears at, and as of this writing was last updated Oct. 6.  The Dallas Morning News has a helpful timeline on Ebola in the U. S. at

Monday, October 13, 2014

Imagining Geoengineering

Okay, suppose some of the most extreme voices warning of global warming are right.  Suppose we really do face the inundation of much of the world's coastlines in a generation or two.  Even if, starting tomorrow, nobody ever burned a drop or a gram of fossil fuel ever again, the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere might take hundreds of years to fall to pre-industrial levels.  So simply implementing restrictions on fossil fuels to reduce carbon-dioxide levels may not do the job fast enough.  What do we do in the meantime?  To use an automotive analogy, if you're going too fast and you see that the road ahead of you ends in a cliff, it might not be sufficient simply to take your foot off the gas.  You might actually have to apply the brakes.  David Keith says we ought to at least talk about applying the global-warming brakes.  But the question I have is, how could it ever get beyond talk?

Keith is a professor with appointments at both the Harvard Kennedy School, where he teaches public policy, and Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  An environmental engineer by training, Keith thinks that "geoengineering" ought to be considered along with reductions in fossil-fuel consumption as a way to reduce the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Geoengineering refers to intentional efforts to manipulate the climate.  So far, the only moderately successful geoengineering projects have been cloud-seeding efforts that arguably increased rainfall in some areas.  But Keith is talking about a worldwide effort to do something that will counteract global warming by artificially cooling the planet somehow.

Interviewed last March by the CBC (Keith is Canadian), he admitted that ideas such as spreading small sulfur particles in the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation as a way of countering global warming are a "brutally ugly technical fix."  But he thinks such geoengineering solutions should be on the table, rather than brushed aside scornfully, as they are by many environmental activists.

Let's try to imagine how such a geoengineering fix would work, not just technically, but politically.  Many of the geoengineering solutions that have been posed are not terribly expensive, globally speaking.  We are talking about industrial quantities of sulfur or other chemicals dispersed in the upper atmosphere, but the cost in terms of the global economy is miniscule.  There is no question that such a project could be mounted by even one well-prepared industrial nation.  The question I'd like to examine is:  could the nations of the world ever reach a consensus on what geoengineering solution to adopt?

If we examine the track record of united global action on the main cause of the carbon-dioxide increase, namely the use of fossil fuels, history is not encouraging.  The most significant effort in this direction is the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997.  It is technically an extension of a 1995 UN agreement that parties signing it will reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases in accordance with certain goals spelled out in the document.  While 192 countries signed the accord, some of the most significant producers of greenhouse gases either did not participate at all (e. g. the U. S. A., China, India) or have not met their targets (e. g. New Zealand). 

The only global environmental agreement I can recall that actually worked was the way we kept chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) from destroying the ozone layer.  CFCs were once used widely as refrigerant fluids (e. g. under the trademark "Freon"), but in the 1970s, scientists figured out that (a) these compounds lasted for a long time in the atmosphere and (b) they catalyzed the destruction of the important ozone layer in the stratosphere, which protects us from harmful UV radiation from the sun.  The Montreal Protocol, which went into effect in 1989, set its signatories on a path to eliminating the production of new CFCs and phasing out their use by finding alternatives.  By and large, the Montreal Protocol is a success story in international technical agreements, because most of the industrialized world signed on and actually did what they agreed to do.

Why can't we get such cooperation with the global-warming issue?  The simple answer is, it would cost more.  Telling the world economy to give up CFCs was like telling a dieter to give up the tutti-frutti milkshake he has every Shrove Tuesday.  CFCs were a minor part of the global economy compared to fossil fuels.  If we accept the most radical recommendations of those alarmed about global warming and implement restrictions as fast as they want us to, well, the point is, the world won't do it without something approaching a global police state.  Developing nations such as China and India will not willingly forego the advantages of wider use of fossil fuels to grow their economies.  It would take a world war and dictatorial economic domination by a single global-warming-prevention entity to make the world go on a fossil-fuel diet.  And that doesn't sound like a good tradeoff.

The thing that geoengineering proponents like David Keith have going for them is that many geoengineering proposals would cost a lot less than replacing fossil fuels with a sustainable alternative.  Whether geoengineering would work is another question, unfortunately even more complicated than the still-controversial question of exactly how bad climate change is going to get, and what adverse effects it will have in the future. 

Besides the technical issue of whether geoengineering would work, I think there is an esthetic or philosophical factor involved.  Many of those who advocate harsh restrictions on fossil-fuel use to avert further climate change seem to have bought into the "deep-green" assumption that humanity is really a net liability for Planet Earth.  Burning fossil fuels represents meddlesome tinkering with what Mother Nature was up to naturally, and geoengineering would be another step down that evil road of manipulating the environment.  Better we just fold our tents, globally and economically speaking, and go back to living off nuts and berries.  The trouble with that notion is that there would not be enough nuts and berries to go around unless we keep burning fossil fuels, or find an energy-equivalent alternative that won't bankrupt us.  Such an alternative is not yet at hand. 

I admire engineers like David Keith for thinking through important problems such as climate change to arrive at possible solutions that might actually work, at least technically.  Given the dismal track record of the Kyoto Protocol, the chances of arriving at a truly global accord to implement significant fossil-fuel reductions are vanishingly small.  If some of the more dire climate-change predictions come to pass, it might be easier to get international agreement on a geoengineering strategy than it would on fossil-fuel reductions, especially if the price is right.

Sources:  An article on David Keith's ideas about geoengineering appeared on March 29, 2014 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on solar radiation management, the Kyoto Protocol, and chlorofluorocarbons.        

Monday, October 06, 2014

Playing with Nuclear Fire

The safety of nuclear weapons is the theme of Eric Schlosser's 2013 book Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.  After reading the book, my own reaction is mirrored in a quote Schlosser cites from General George Butler, who became head of the U. S. Strategic Air Command shortly before the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991.  After familiarizing himself with the secret plans for nuclear war, Butler later remarked that "we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

Did you know, for example, that on March 11, 1958, a nuclear bomb landed on a playhouse belonging to the Gregg family of Mars Bluff, South Carolina?  The impact was strong enough to set off the high explosives in the bomb, destroying the playhouse, a nearby automobile, and injuring six family members.  Fortunately, the nuclear core was not inserted in the bomb.  It remained behind in a B-52 aircraft three miles above, where the navigator had entered the bomb bay to check on the status of a locking pin.  As he crawled awkwardly around the device, he grabbed the nearest object at hand for support, which happened to be the manual bomb-release lever.  The bomb fell onto the bay doors and forced them open, and the navigator narrowly avoided following it to the ground by hanging on for dear life. 

That same manual bomb-release lever was responsible for at least one other accidental loss of a nuclear bomb.  The most hair-raising accident involving nuclear weapons happened to a Titan II nuclear missile in a silo near Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980.  The Titan II was the same multistage rocket that boosted the Gemini manned spacecraft into orbit in the 1960s.  It used highly hazardous nitrogen tetroxide liquid oxidizer and an equally dangerous rocket fuel, which would explode on contact with the oxidizer.  You can imagine the challenges involved at underground missile silos all over the U. S., as Air Force personnel struggled to keep dozens of these hundred-foot-tall rockets fueled and ready for launch in minutes during the many years of the Cold War. 

Inevitably, something would go wrong.  On that fateful day in 1980, during a routine pressure check on the missile in Launch Complex 374-7, a technician dropped a heavy socket-wrench socket.  It bounced off a projection inside the underground silo, hit the thin aluminum skin of the rocket, and punctured it, allowing fuel to escape into the silo.  Over the next nine hours, things got steadily worse.  I won't give away the ending of this particular story, which reads like a Tom Clancy thriller in spots, but today the silo is filled in and the land has been returned to its previous owner.

The  Damascus accident advances in fits and starts over the entire length of the book as Schlosser digresses into the history of nuclear weapons, the evolution of nuclear-weapons policy in international relations, and attempts to make nuclear weapons safe as well as reliable.  This structure mostly works, although at times I found myself wishing for less political and military infighting and more Cold War stories about bomb accidents.  But there is plenty of both, for policy wonks interested in the finer points of Henry Kissinger's diplomatic skills and for techies wanting to know exactly how a thermonuclear weapon's electronic system functions.

The more time passes, the harder it is to believe that two of the most advanced industrial countries of the world—the U. S. A. and the Soviet Union—routinely played chicken with nuclear weapons, not just once, but dozens of times.  And most of these games were played in an era when the most advanced communications systems were either submarine cables installed as long ago as the 1860s, or shortwave radios that were essentially amateur radio sets on steroids.  During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, generally recognized by historians as the time that the world edged closest to the nuclear brink, whenever the Soviet ambassador in Washington wanted to send urgent messages to his superiors back in the USSR, he had to call Western Union, which sent a messenger to the embassy on a bicycle and carried a piece of paper back to the telegraph office by hand.  

Because few civilians ever saw or dealt with nuclear weapons, the whole Cold War threat had an unreal quality to it, but it was frighteningly real.  Schlosser shows us that everyone living in the U. S. and the USSR, not to mention other nations with nuclear capabilities, had numerous escapes from a fiery or lingering death by nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, though most of us were unaware of them.  And of course, that threat still exists today, though now the most dangerous nations with nuclear weapons are places like North Korea and Pakistan.  As I write this, North Korea's nominal leader Kim Jong Un has not been seen in public for more than a month, so we don't really know who's in charge there.

Toward the end of the book, Schlosser quotes Langdon Winner's comment that "artifacts have politics."  That is to say, the very nature of some technologies compels the formation of certain types of political structures to deal with them.  The only way to deal with nuclear weapons, Winner concluded, is to form a secret, authoritarian system of control.  The ultimate in hazardous technology demands the ultimate in control and safety precautions.  Although nuclear-weapons powers have done pretty well at controlling the intentional use of such devices, the horror-story list of accidents that Schlosser has compiled in Command and Control leaves one with the impression that it is only a matter of time until we see an entire city or region vaporized, not because someone decided to start a war on purpose, but because some technician screwed up.  For the sake of everyone who might be endangered by it, I hope that such an accident never happens.  But unless those who decide to build nuclear weapons value safety as highly as they do reliability, the chances are that sooner or later, it will.

Sources:  Eric Schlosser's Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety was published in 2013 by the Penguin Press.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Mars Bluff, SC, the Mark 6 nuclear bomb, Titan II, Langdon Winner, and the 1980 Damascus, Arkansas incident.  As of today (Oct. 6, 2014), CNN reports that Kim Jong Un has not made a public appearance since Sept. 4.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Limits of Diversity

This month's Scientific American devotes twenty pages to articles on diversity in science—the shameful lack thereof, and what can be done about it. One piece is a kind of confessional by a Lockheed Martin engineer who quickly moved into management and found that as she chose staff from widely varying backgrounds, the quality of her group's work increased.  Other articles cite social-science studies that show diverse organizations are not only more socially just; they do better science and engineering too.  The reader of these paeans to diversity could not be blamed for taking away the impression that diversity is like goodness:  you simply can't have too much of it.  Is that true?  Or are there limits to diversity?

What does diversity mean?  It has both an objective aspect, and a subjective or political aspect.  In the strict sense of diversity meaning merely "difference," one can objectively measure diversity in genetic makeup, diversity in hair color, or diversity in virtually any other measurable characteristic that a group of things or people has.  This scientific aspect allows statisticians to crank out reams of charts showing the degree of gender diversity in the number of Ph. D.'s granted, ethnic diversity in hiring practices, and so on.  So in this scientific sense, diversity is a quantifiable, measurable thing.

But when we ask what kinds of diversity are significant in the sense addressed by the Scientific American authors, the list narrows to political and cultural hot-button matters:  gender, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.  Scientists and engineers must deal with these matters not as mythical objective professionals, but as human beings.  And in so doing, the issue becomes an ethical, political, and even philosophical one.

The idea of virtue is not a scientific concept, but it is one of the best ways to describe a certain class of characteristics involving choice, as Aristotle says.  I think Aristotle would class diversity as a type of virtue because a diverse organization is better with regard to social justice than a non-diverse one, and (as the social scientists have shown), diverse scientific organizations do science and engineering better than non-diverse ones.  Making something intrinsically good and also better at what it does are the two main aspects of a virtue (again, according to Aristotle), and diversity qualifies on both counts.

The next question is this:  can you have too much diversity?  Most virtues represent a mean or rough average between the two extremes of excess and deficiency.  Assembling a competent technical organization with a mind to diversity represents a compromise between extremes.  In the decades before diversity in its modern sense was recognized as an organizational goal, those in charge (usually white males) picked the best people they could while following the cultural norms of their time.  These norms generally (but not always) excluded women and minorities, and tended to perpetuate the demographic makeup of the organization, while making it extremely hard or impossible for non-whites and non-males to enter.  This was bad. 

However, you can imagine an opposite extreme.  The perfectly diverse organization would have diversity statistics identical to those of the largest applicable sample group:  the state, the nation, or even the world.  William F. Buckley is supposed to have said he'd rather be governed by the first hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the entire faculty of Harvard University, and in this proposal, at least, he was favoring the opposite extreme of diversity I am talking about.  But if diversity is the only criterion of selection, the specialized competencies that a research or engineering organization needs will be absent, except by chance, and it will fail to achieve its objective, unless its only objective is to show that it is acceptably diverse.

The U. S. National Science Foundation has in recent years spent a substantial portion of its resources encouraging diversity in various ways.  To the extent that these efforts have righted previous injustices committed either consciously or through unconscious bias against certain groups, they are to be applauded.  But there is nothing scientific about the choices of which measures of diversity to work on. 

In a secular democracy, these choices are made politically.  And making politics your ultimate authority can land you in unpleasant places, as scientists in Russia and Germany have found.  A crackpot biologist named Lysenko got his hands on the political levers of control in the old USSR in the 1920s. Lysenko thought acquired characteristics could be inherited, and for the next forty years, any Soviet biologist who disagreed with Lysenko about evolution was liable to disappear into the Siberian work camps.  And the Nazi party in Germany took delight in calling Einstein's theory of relativity "Jewish physics."  Such blatant overruling of science by politics can always happen if those in charge value political goals more than the integrity of science.

I am personally about as un-diverse as you can get: an old white male conservative Christian Texan.  An organization composed of people like me would score close to zero on any diversity index you care to name.  I view the diversity project as an attempt, however flawed, to show the type of love that wills the good of the beloved to people who would otherwise be kept from flourishing to the best of their abilities.  There is nothing wrong with this type of love.  It is the type of love Jesus Christ exhorted his followers to show to each other.  But implementing diversity in a way that helps those who need that type of help without inflicting harm or the loss of opportunity on others is an inherently complex task.  The only way to do it perfectly would be to have perfect insight into the problem of social justice, and only God has that.  Any human attempt at diversity represents a compromise between using resources to increase diversity, versus using resources to address the task at hand.  And those promoting diversity should remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Sources: The October 2014 issue of Scientific American includes Stephanie C. Hill's article "In pursuit of the best ideas:  How I learned the value of diversity," on pp. 48-49.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Lysenkoism and "Deutsche physik" ("German physics").

Monday, September 22, 2014

Go Slow with GoPro?

In an article in this week's New Yorker magazine, Nick Paumgarten contemplates the wider effects of GoPro, the sports-oriented wearable cameras that have inspired viral videos of amazing stunts watched by millions on the Internet, and things like the GoPro Mountain Games, a venue where mountain bikers, rock climbers, and even ten-year-old girls on ziplines record every second of their exploits for fun, and sometimes profit.  (It turns out that GoPro sponsors certain athletes with things like free cameras, or a monetary reward for getting a million hits on a GoPro-made YouTube video.)  While admitting the obvious entertainment value of the small portable video cameras both for the users and the viewers, Paumgarten looks at the potential downsides of this new technology, and provides some useful food for thought.

First, he worries that people will increasingly fall victim to what I'd call "camera-itis", which I have suffered from on numerous vacations:  the temptation to transform a live novel experience, whether of a ski slope, a wedding, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, into just another shot to be captured.  This is in contrast to the traditional reason to see remarkable sights, which is to let them soak into you and transform you over time.  For example, the way Henry Adams visited Chartres Cathedral in France.

One of the most profound appreciations of the artistic merits of Chartres Cathedral was penned by the American historian Henry Adams.  A reader of his book about that medieval monument to faith can sense the hours of study, contemplation, and reflection that Adams put into his work, both in time spent at the cathedral and in historical research.  Perhaps Adams used photographs to jog his memory, but his musings on the cathedral are about as far as you can get from the exploits Paumgarten describes toward the end of his article:  BASE jumping from famous buildings while wearing a GoPro.  Yes, the One World Trade building does show up in a shot filmed by a clandestine leaper from that building, who managed to survive.  But the point of that video wasn't artistic appreciation.

For readers like me who have never heard of BASE jumping before now, it stands for "building, antenna, span [of a bridge, presumably], earth [meaning a cliff]"—four types of places from which a jumper whose courage sometimes exceeds his judgment leaps in the fond hope that his parachute will deploy in time.  So far, 242 haven't—that is the total number of deaths recorded in an online BASE fatality list since the sport began around 1981.  A GoPro or other means of documenting your exploit is a necessary part of this fringe semi-suicidal cult sport.  While it would be unfair to shut down an entire camera industry on account of its abuse by a few kooks, it must be admitted that the availability of cameras like GoPro have encouraged this sort of daredevil activity.

But one of the most serious and wide-ranging issues Paumgarten identifies in connection with GoPro-type cameras springs from a matter I blogged about a few weeks ago in connection with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Paumgarten writes "a world in which the police film every interaction is not all sweetness and light.  You may catch some bad cops, but you'd also hamstring the good ones. . . . It deprives the police of discretion, and the public of leniency.  There are many things we'd rather not see or have seen."

Paumgarten's chief concern here seems to be that once a cop films an infraction, he or she will have no choice but to proceed with an arrest.  He says a video record "has the effect of a mandatory sentence" and enforces "uninterpretable standards of exchange." 

I have spent some time trying to figure out what he means by uninterpretable standards of exchange, and haven't made much progress.  Every image has to be interpreted somehow.  Objectively speaking, images are simply arrangements of color on a screen, and require perception and interpretation by a human mind to convey meaning at all.  The question is not whether a video can be interpreted—not only can it be, it must be if it is to convey any information—but who does the interpreting, and what principles the interpreter follows in translating the raw images into conclusions about pertinent matters of fact. 

Paumgarten may be thinking in legal terms that filming police encounters effectively brings the whole legal system—judge, jury, prosecuting and defense attorneys, you name it—onto the street corner along with the cop and the public.  And of course, such a situation would markedly change the interaction between law enforcement and citizenry.  But unless we become an actual police state, with every action, word, and gesture not just potentially, but actually scrutinized by a hostile Big Brother, video recording of police work need not change the routine activity of cops who deal with the public.  For every arrest, there are many lesser interactions of the "break it up, folks, there's nothing to see here" variety.  And unless some lawyers find a way to exploit the presence of recordings of this sort of minor interchange by charging police brutality where none exists, there is no reason to think that cops with good judgment will be any less able to deal with the public in these minor ways than they are now.  But never underestimate the ability of lawyers to squeeze profit out of a situation.

Beyond law-enforcement concerns lies the greater question of how life will change as recording cameras become more nearly ubiquitous.  There have always been foolhardy persons willing to risk life and limb for the chance to do something that will get their name in the paper—even if it's the obituaries.  We may have a few more of these folks now that GoPro has come along, but they probably would have gone ahead and done something foolish anyway without a camera.  In the hands of private citizens, GoPro cameras seem to be mostly a benign influence, encouraging the sharing of remarkable experiences by those who do not have the descriptive verbal abilities of a Henry Adams.  And while wearable cameras hold out the promise of better evidence in police work, we need to adopt rules that preserve the ability of the cop on the beat to use his or her discretion in enforcing the law.  The introduction of radar speed-detection devices did not eliminate the warning ticket.  And the use of wearable cameras need not transform a police department into an array of RoboCops that automatically mete out punishments for all infractions, however minor or technical. 

Sources:  Nick Paumgarten's article "We Are A Camera" appeared on pp. 44-52 of the Sept. 22, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on BASE jumping and Henry Adams (1838-1918), who published his Mont Saint Michel and Chartres in 1904.  One of the most-viewed GoPro shots of all time—a "fail" in GoPro parlance—shows skier Stefan Ager's point of view as he slips from an Austrian mountain peak and falls a thousand feet into a snowbank, only to groan and get up again.  It's at 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tech Fix for Texting While Driving

By now, almost everybody with a cellphone and a car knows that it's a bad idea to text while you're driving.  But people still do it, and some of those people die in text-related car crashes and take innocent victims with them.  What if technology existed that simply prevented people from texting from a moving car at all?  Wouldn't that solve the problem?

Scott Tibbetts thought so.  Tibbets and his company Katasi were profiled in a recent New York Times article for developing a promising technology that would simply block texting from any phone that was in a moving car.  While there are several technological solutions to this problem that are already on the market, they all have various problems. 

Some text-blocking apps work by using the phone's GPS to figure out if the phone is moving faster than walking speed.  If it is, the software concludes that you're driving, and blocks texts.  This one turns out to be a battery hog, because the GPS system has to run all the time.  It also might present problems for train and bus passengers.  Another system uses the car's speed sensor and links it to the phone with a Bluetooth wireless connection.  But it costs over a hundred bucks, and there aren't that many people who are both concerned enough about texting while driving to buy it, and also willing to shell out that much money for something they could do for free with a little more willpower, perhaps. 

Mr. Tibbetts' solution is cleverer than these.  It involves connecting a wireless box to the car's OBD-II port—the on-board diagnostics socket that the auto technicians use to figure out what the "service engine" light means.  When the car's moving fast enough to be dangerous, the wireless box sends that information to the cellphone network, which then asks the phone—once—where it is.  Then, if the network is using the software developed by Mr. Tibbetts' firm Katasi, the software uses the location data to figure out things like who is driving the car.  You don't want a whole family's text service blocked just because Mom is driving to the grocery store, for instance.  That way, the GPS battery-drain problem is minimized, and the computational heavy lifting is done in the cloud, so to speak, rather than by the phone.

Mr. Tibbetts, an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur, has persuaded both an insurance company and a cellphone provider (Sprint) to cooperate in test trials, which have worked fine.  But it appears that the largest player, Sprint, has gotten cold feet lately, and has stalled further tests.  In the Times interview, Wayne Ward, vice-president for business and product development at Sprint, expressed concerns about product liability.  Currently, if a driver texts while driving and gets in a wreck, it's the driver's fault.  Mr. Ward asks what might happen if Sprint sells the Katasi system that claims to prevent such accidents, and then some glitch happens and somebody sneaks through a text and crashes anyway?  Why, Sprint could be sued!

Pardon me, but it appears that there's more going on here than meets the eye.  Any time a small independent company comes up to a big firm and offers the big guy new technology, the not-invented-here problem can raise its ugly head.  Short of buying the small upstart outright (which happens a lot, by the way), if the big firm adapts the small company's technology, they will be on the hook for royalty payments or other forms of obligation that big companies don't want to be tied down to.  And there's also the simple pride factor expressed by the phrase "not invented here"—if we didn't think of it first, it can't be that good. 

Besides, it's not clear who would make enough money to offset the expenses of the added hardware and software—and lawyers' fees, if Mr. Ward's fears turned out to be correct.  The existing GPS-based solutions for text blocking in cars aren't exactly selling like hotcakes, even after all but five states have adopted no-texting-while-driving laws of one form or another. 

One could imagine a legal solution:  make something like the Katasi text-blocking system mandatory by government fiat.  Nobody has seriously put forward that idea yet.  But it might happen.  There was a time when ordinary window glass was used in automobiles, with the result that otherwise minor wrecks turned deadly when razor-sharp knives of glass flew around and sliced—well, enough said.  But when the technology of laminating glass with a plastic inner layer was developed around 1920 to keep the shattered pieces together, auto companies adopted it, partly motivated by fear of lawsuits.  Eventually, most countries made it a legal requirement for all glass in automobiles to be laminated or safety glass, but it looks like the firms were ahead of the government in that case.

Safety glass is a different kind of thing than automatic text-blocking.  An auto company could start using safety glass and just raise the car's price incrementally, and hardly any customers would notice the change.  But as soon as you stop a person from doing something that they're used to doing, like texting while driving, you create a sharp negative impression.  And that's something that cellphone providers are reluctant to do as long as there are competitors ready to take business away.

My hat is off to Mr. Tibbetts, who put five years and millions of dollars into developing a clever technological fix for a significant problem.  But as many engineers turned entrepreneurs have learned, building the better mousetrap­—or text trap—is only part of the problem.  Convincing people to buy it and use it is often harder than coming up with the invention itself.  If everybody used something like the Katasi system on their cellphones, we would all be safer, no question about that.  We would also lose a little freedom of judgment which we can now exercise, which is whether to text while driving.  Perhaps some telecomm industry leaders will get together and agree to adopt Katasi, or something like it, but such inter-company cooperation for a non-financial thing like safety is a rarity.  It could happen, though.  I bet Mr. Tibbetts, for one, hopes that it will. 

Sources:  The New York Times article "Trying to Hit the Brake on Texting While Driving" by Matt Richtel, appeared in the online edition on Sept. 13, 2014 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on on-board diagnostics, windshields, and safety glass. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Close Shave With Plutonium Foam

Plutonium is nasty stuff.  It's highly radioactive, so breathing plutonium dust is not a good way to live to a ripe old age.  And did I mention it's an essential ingredient in most thermonuclear weapons?  For these and many other reasons, nuclear waste contaminated with plutonium is not something you just toss in the ordinary trash can.  That is why, at great trouble and expense, the U. S. Department of Energy built the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) about fifteen years ago, a few miles outside Carlsbad, New Mexico.  It is the nation's only federally operated "permanent" disposal facility for nuclear waste.  I put permanent in quotes, because, well, something that happened last Valentine's Day showed that so far, putting stuff there is anything but permanent storage.

WIPP is in a salt mine, but salt happens to be a byproduct.  The reason WIPP was constructed in the middle of a large salt deposit is that over geological time scales, salt acts more like Silly Putty than rock—it bends and flows instead of breaking, and seals any cracks that might develop.  So the scientists and engineers who designed WIPP chose to site it thousands of feet underground in a salt deposit so that even after 10,000 years, underground water would be unlikely to penetrate to the still-radioactive byproducts of nuclear-weapons manufacturing, which comes from a number of national labs dating all the way back to World War II.  And for most of the facility's history, things went more or less according to plan.  After they dug tunnels in the salt and opened up an area the size of several soccer fields, they began filling the space with 55-gallon drums full of nuclear waste from places like Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and elsewhere.

Then, on the night of Feb. 14, 2014, when no one was actually underground but some monitoring personnel were standing their watches on the surface, a radiation alarm went off alerting technicians to high levels of radioactivity underground.  The expert who knew what to do about such an alarm was not on duty.  They tried to contact this person, without success.  This went on till early on the morning of Feb. 15, when some workers began to suspect that the radiation released underground might be coming up through the ventilation system to the surface.  After trying to change some ventilation filters, managers finally ordered the WIPP personnel to go to a safe location, but by that time they had been exposed to low levels of radiation, as a later investigation showed.

What happened?  According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, one of the drums stored underground spontaneously ruptured, spewing out several cubic feet of white foam laced with plutonium.  Some of the foam or vapor from it got into the ventilation system that exchanges air between the underground rooms and the surface.  This system had radiation detectors, and in the event of a release of radioactive material, it was supposed to divert the ventilation air to filters that would catch all radioactive particles.  But the dampers assigned to do this leaked, and lots of contaminated air got to the surface anyway.  Over six months later, WIPP is still in a partial-shutdown mode, and estimates of what it will take to restore it to safe operation range up to $100 million or more. 

Opinions on the propriety of nuclear technology range all the way from "no way, José" to "nuclear energy is our best weapon against global warming" and everywhere in between.  Dead-set opponents of nuclear energy will see in the WIPP accident evidence that plans to keep nuclear waste safe for thousands of years in an underground facility have now been revealed to be a sorry joke.  The disabling of WIPP for receiving nuclear waste has not only put the whole idea of underground disposal into doubt, but has also caused a chain reaction (so to speak) of delays in cleanups of nuclear labs around the U. S.

For those who still believe nuclear energy is a good long-term option for our future energy needs, the WIPP accident shows how even the best-laid plans can be upset by a failure of management integrity.  Even now, no one knows exactly what happened chemically inside that drum to cause it to rupture.  Investigations have revealed lapses in the procedures used to transfer information about each drum's contents to WIPP operators.  In other words, WIPP managers are not sure what went into that drum in the first place, so they don't have a basis for duplicating it and maybe finding out how to prevent other similar ruptures.  Finding one rattlesnake just hatching out of an egg strongly motivates you to wonder where the other eggs are, and the WIPP people may be sitting on dozens of plutonium rattlesnake eggs.  And you thought you had problems.

All this talk about 10,000-year lifetimes makes me wonder what will be left of our own civilization even a thousand years from now.  Egypt has its pyramids, Greece has its temples, and maybe all we'll have is WIPP? 

A few days ago, a relative of mine sent me a video of the opening of a time capsule that was buried only fifty years ago, in 1964, at the founding of a bank in Fort Worth, Texas, where my father used to work.  Whoever designed that time capsule did a good job:  along with the perishable newsprint and film reels, they packed a sock full of desiccator and sealed the whole thing with an air-tight lead seal.  As a result, the stuff inside looked like it had just been put on the shelf yesterday. 

A 50-year time capsule is a far stretch from a 10,000-year nuclear waste repository.  But when we are talking about stuff that could kill anyone it touches, the highest standards of engineering and safety must be followed, from the minute that hazardous waste reaches WIPP to the end of the 10,000-year warranty period.  There will be pleas for more money for WIPP as a result of this accident, but money isn't the only answer. 

Money can't buy integrity, and money alone can't bring into being a cadre of dedicated individuals to whom their duty with regard to safety is their highest calling.  About the only place in government you can find this attitude consistently these days is in the military.  I'm not saying we should call in the Marines to take over WIPP.  But if they did, I bet you wouldn't have any more twelve-hour delays between the time an alarm went off and the time appropriate actions were taken. 

Sources:  One of the first reports of the WIPP accident was carried by National Public Radio at  The most detailed news report I have found was from the Los Angeles Times, which published it online on Aug. 23 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on "Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" and "Plutonium."  For those interested, the opening of the 50-year time capsule at the former City National Bank is described in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at