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

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Toll of Patent Trolls

Inventions and engineers go together like songs and musicians, and consequently every engineer should know something about patents.  The practice of patenting inventions to give the inventor a temporary monopoly as a reward for ingenuity is something that most countries do today, and by and large, we are probably better off with patent systems than without them.  But patent systems can be abused, and some of the biggest abusers of the patent system in the U. S. are "nonpracticing entities" (NPEs), otherwise known as patent trolls, as pointed out in William J. Watkins' recent book Patent Trolls:  Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation.

If you're a patent troll, here is what you do.  First, you acquire a lot of broadly written patents on some technology that either has a lot of wealthy corporations active in it already, or is likely to in the future.  Software is a favorite, as are wireless technologies and even business practices involving the Internet.  You either file the patents yourself or, more likely, buy them up at a dime a dozen at a bankruptcy sale of some startup.  Then you wait till a well-heeled firm like Apple or IBM is doing something vaguely related to your patents, and you send them a letter threatening to sue for patent infringement.  If they call your bluff, you file suit in the U. S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas, headquartered in the town of Marshall near the Texas-Louisiana border.  You carefully select a jury of twelve rural citizens who probably wouldn't know an ethernet cable from a rattlesnake, and your lawyer (who is a member of your small NPE firm) exhorts them about the evils of out-of-state big-business interests who try to crush the innovative spirit of the small, struggling, independent businessman/inventor, namely you.  More likely, the defendant corporation you threaten to sue simply settles out of court for millions of dollars rather than face an even more expensive jury trial, and you walk away richer and better-funded to do it all over again next time.

If this unsavory process smacks of blackmail, you are on the right track.  Unfortunately, a number of legislative and bureaucratic circumstances have created a large loophole through which millions of dollars each year is drained from productive firms into the pockets of patent trolls.  The U. S. patent law was written back at a time when most inventions had a lifetime of at least several years, so the term of fourteen years (later extended to twenty) was a reasonable one.  But now that product lifetimes, especially in the software field, are measured in months rather than years, twenty years is plenty of time for a patent to turn into a kind of zombie, rising from the dead when revived by a patent troll to haunt a legitimate firm with dubious claims of infringement.  The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office is severely understaffed, with each of its few examiners having to work through hundreds of filings a year.  Rather than let a backlog pile up, they have defaulted to issuing patents freely, including many which really shouldn't be allowed.  And finally, judges and juries in the Eastern District have proved so friendly to the patent trolls and hostile to the defendants that the American Tort Reform Foundation has put it on their watch list of "Judicial Hellholes."

The well-heeled giant tech firms are not the only ones harmed by patent trolls. Watkins cites an example of a small software startup in the late 1990s headed by one Brandon Shalton, who teamed with two nuns to develop a way that pastors could record their messages and play them back through a website.  After testing the product with several churches, Shalton prepared to market his product, only to be confronted by a challenge from Acacia Research Corporation, which held a patent that they claimed would be infringed by Shalton's product.  Shalton knew the claim was false—the general idea of recording audio on a website had been around for years.  But lacking the resources to fight Acacia's threat, Shalton threw in the towel, and his company died before it was even born, a victim of a patent troll.

What can be done about patent trolls?  One idea being considered for legislative action is to impose some kind of practice requirement on a plaintiff in a patent infringement lawsuit.  Unless the plaintiff suing for infringement can show evidence of actually intending to use the patent to make something—manufacturing facilities, investment plans, etc.—the plaintiff would not be allowed to sue.  Under current law, simply owning a validly issued patent, no matter how flimsy, entitles you to file a suit for patent infringement, even if you never intend to use the patent yourself to make or sell anything. 

In making such a fix, lawmakers would have to be careful to protect the rights of the truly independent inventor, who has a good idea and patents it but lacks the resources to exploit it fully.  This is the mask that most patent trolls don when they go before juries, but the reality is different in most cases.  Watkins thinks there are ways to make sure that small independent inventors can still obtain valid patents and protect them, while putting the true patent trolls out of business.

Patent law represents a balance between protecting the rights of the inventor and allowing the benefits of the invention to spread beyond the inventor's initial monopoly.  No patent system will ever make everybody happy.  But Watkins makes a good case that patent trolls are currently stifling innovation and exploiting a loophole in the present system that ought to be closed.

Sources: Patent Trolls:  Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation by William J. Watkins Jr. was published by the Independent Institute of Oakland, California in 2013.  A complex case of a true inventor who eventually veered toward patent-trolling but left a legacy encouraging independent invention was Jerome Lemelson, who I mentioned in my blog of May 30, 2007, "Engineering Altruism:  Two Paths."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cops and Cameras

When Michael Brown was shot and killed a little after noon on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson, several eyewitnesses saw what happened.  Autopsy results have been released that reveal Brown was shot six times.  Word that Brown was unarmed at the time spread fast and for several days, Ferguson was the scene of angry protests by day and unrest by night, to which police responded with tear gas and curfews.  On August 18, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called in the state's national guard troops, which were withdrawn after three days of increasing calm.  But tensions are still high, and depending on who you ask, you will hear either that Officer Wilson was defending himself against a potentially deadly physical assault by Brown, or that Brown was guilty of nothing more than being black and walking down the street when an out-of-control white cop killed him.

Would a body-mounted video camera on Wilson's chest have made this situation any better?  More generally, should cops carry body-mounted video cameras and use them any time they're dealing with the public?

Ironically, the Ferguson police department had reportedly bought some body-worn cameras, but had not yet deployed them at the time of the shooting.  For police, using a body-mounted camera is not just a simple matter of strapping one more piece of gear onto your shirt.  Some states have laws about recording video without a private person's permission.  And video cameras generate beaucoup quantities of data that have to be dealt with somehow, although various services offer cloud-based solutions to this particular problem.  Finally, the cameras do cost something, but current prices average in the $350 range, about what a service revolver costs.  And unlike revolvers, the price-performance ratio of video cameras continues to fall, which is why they're showing up in more and more places.

The price of video recording has been falling ever since May 22, 1958, when the first color video recording of a live event was made.   On that day, President Eisenhower was scheduled to make a brief address at the new NBC color television studios in Washington, DC.  RCA president David Sarnoff, ever alert to the potential for making technical history, arranged for the event to be recorded by the network's new color video recording system.  The signals were transmitted over the NBC network to Burbank, California, where an experimental magnetic-tape video recorder captured the half-hour ceremony.  Fifty-six years later, what it took a roomful of equipment and dozens of engineers to do then can now be done by one little box strapped to an officer's chest.  But does the fact that we can do such a thing mean that we must do it?

Several news reports have cited the experience of the police force in Rialto, California, where all police officers have been wearing pager-size body cameras for more than a year.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, in the year since the cameras were deployed, the use of force by officers went down 60% and complaints by citizens about police misbehavior declined 88%. 

One possible cause for these remarkable improvements is what might be termed the video-placebo effect.  Back in the days when video equipment was relatively expensive, retail stores often bought cheap imitation cameras that looked like real ones but were just dummies—empty boxes.  But the sight of them deterred crime about as well as real ones did.  Simply publicizing the fact that your officers all wear cameras will change the psychology of both the officers and the people they deal with, even if the video evidence isn't used. 

There is, of course, the opposite effect to consider.  Sometimes the presence of cameras creates trouble where it wouldn't otherwise exist.  Most people are familiar with the fact that protesters are attracted to news cameras like flies to honey.  But that sort of thing happens only when publicity is the main goal.  For true criminals, publicity is the last thing they want.  So it is likely that both citizens and cops will act better if body-mounted cameras are used.

The wide availability of video recordings of police actions can tempt users to give in to a concept summarized by the phrase "the camera cannot lie."  While it is true that the camera cannot lie, it can't tell the truth, either.  Truth is a property of the immaterial things called propositions, and hardware and photographs aren't propositions.  They can provide evidence for the truth of propositions, but the evidence must be evaluated and interpreted by fallible human beings.  So if body cameras become as standard a piece of police gear as a badge, lawyers and others concerned with the validity of evidence need to remember the idea that video evidence is like any other kind of evidence, and there's nothing magical or automatically dispute-resolving about it.

Sure, eyewitness accounts of Michael Brown's shooting differed.  That is the nature of eyewitness accounts.  But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if only Officer Williams had used a body-mounted camera, that everyone could have just watched the video and gone away in total agreement as to what happened and why.  Cameras are helpful in finding out the facts—no doubt about that.  I'm glad that engineering progress has made something that used to be affordable only by million-dollar organizations cheap enough to benefit law enforcement personnel all over the world. 

But like any other type of evidence, video can be misused.  And the procedures for selecting and making such recordings available to both prosecution and defense need to be worked out so that justice is truly served by this new technology.

Sources:  I have consulted reports on the Michael Brown shooting carried by NBC News at, and reports on law-enforcement video cameras carried by Mother Jones at and the Wall Street Journal at  A description of the unrest following the incident was carried by the Daily Telegraph (UK) at
I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on "Shooting of Michael Brown."  For nerds interested in the world's oldest color videorecording, it is viewable at, and a description of how it was recovered from old tapes and restored is at

Note Regarding Ads:  A few weeks ago, I noted that I was going to experiment with monetization on this blog.  After going through the application process, it was approved, and this morning (Monday 8/25) ads will begin to appear below the latest blog.  I have no control over which ad Google chooses to place in this space.  I am also prohibited from clicking on the ad to see what it might be about, a prohibition I have already violated once out of shock, more or less. (Maybe they will change the ad eventually, but the one I saw this morning showed a gal in a short white dress.  It would not be my first choice for an ad, shall we say.)  So the whole venture of experimenting with ads may come to an abrupt conclusion shortly.  Stay tuned, please, and in the meantime I will investigate the possibility of exercising some control over what sort of ads appear in this space.  But it may be a choice of simply any ad they pick, or no ads at all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Survivor" On Mars: Poor Ratings Could Be Deadly

Reality shows on TV claim to present life as it happens.  Never mind that the kind of life that happens on these shows is something that most of us would pay money to avoid:  getting tossed into a wilderness with next to nothing to live on, or being expelled from the show altogether by a vote of your peers.  But reality shows continue in various forms to be one of the more popular TV genres.

A Dutch nonprofit startup called Mars One is planning a reality show that is literally out of this world.  The organization's plan is to send four astronauts—two men and two women—to Mars by 2025, that is, eleven years from now.  And they plan for their main source of revenue to be fees charged by the outfit for continuous media coverage of the entire venture. 

Did I say anything about bringing the astronauts back?  No, and neither does Mars One.  From the get-go, the organization's plan has been to get their stars to Mars, and after that, well, they knew what they were getting into, didn't they?  And there's always phone calls—with a seven-minute one-way delay.  Despite this, er, disadvantage, about 200,000 people have reportedly expressed interest in being selected for the first trip.  As of last May, Mars One had culled the list of prospects down to about 700 lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) people.  Eventually it will have to be cut down to a few dozen or so at most who will undergo the planned seven or eight years of training, which has to commence no later than 2016 for the project to keep on schedule for the launch in 2024 (it will take over a year to get there). 

The Mars One website has that characteristically Dutch tone of modesty combined with a tolerance for things that other cultures consider beyond the pale.  It may be no coincidence that the same country harboring Mars One is also where euthanasia has made its biggest advances.  And as far as living on earth is concerned, the Mars One trip would be just a long-drawn-out, televised, technologically implemented end to your earthly existence. 

In a way, there's nothing new about Mars One's invitation to become famous and historical at the price of never being on earth again.  In wars and disasters, individuals have at various times chosen to throw away their lives with a vanishingly small chance of survival, in order to achieve a greater good.  Japanese fighter pilots flew suicide missions in the closing days of World War II.  Arland D. Williams, Jr., one of only six survivors of a plane that crashed into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982, repeatedly handed lifelines to the other survivors, only to drown when the plane's wing he was standing on sank.  But rightly or wrongly, these people were sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

What is the comparable cause that Mars One is proposing to achieve, at the price of its passengers' lives?  Whatever it is, 200,000 people around the world at least considered it worthwhile enough to apply. 

National glory doesn't seem to be much of a motive.  Mars One is probably the most extreme existing example of the turn toward private space ventures that began about a decade ago.  When space exploration was something so difficult that only governments could afford it, those who volunteered and went through the arduous training and took great risks—and those who lost their lives, too—had the satisfaction of knowing that their actions were on the behalf of the United States, or the USSR, or (more lately) the People's Republic of China.  During the space race of the 1960s, being an astronaut was a way of fighting the Cold War by other means.  But the Mars One venture has a deliberately international tone to it, and I suspect that most of their applicants consider themselves mainly citizens of the world, rather than of the particular country where they happened to be born.

What if Mars One barely manages to get their first folks on Mars and then runs out of money?  Even the most debauched reality-TV shows up to now have not proposed to show us live scenes of slow starvation, but that's what we'd be dealing with.  What would the dying colonists be thinking? 

There are precedents for this sort of thing, after all.  We can look at the record left behind of a man who knowingly ventured on a risky expedition that turned out badly:  Robert Falcon Scott.  In 1912, his team was the second in history to reach the South Pole, after Roald Amundsen.  A few weeks later, after his team consumed the last of their provisions, Scott was the last of his five-person party to die of cold and starvation.  Knowing what was coming, he left a "Message to the Public" which reads in part: "We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence. . . . Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman."  He lived and died an Englishman to the last, and expressed his dying thoughts in prose that has stood the test of time.

If Mars One ever gets off the ground, the adventure may end in tragedy—suddenly, with no time for last words or regrets, or slowly, allowing its victims to reflect on their fate as Scott did in his last letters.  Maybe in the applicant pool of 700 there are one or two Robert F. Scotts whose grasp of reality, and what the human spirit is capable of, would be equal to a supreme crisis like the one Scott faced.  But the track record of reality TV is not promising in this regard.  

Sources:  The Mars One website is  I referred to reports on their activities at (posted April 13, 2014) and a CNN report at  I also consulted Wikipedia articles on reality television and Ronald Falcon Scott.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dodging Solar Bullets

Massive blackouts—pipeline explosions—whole regions of Europe or North America plunged into the nineteenth century, but without even the rudiments of that century's technology.  Elevators that don't elevate, ventilators that don't ventilate, gas pumps that don't pump, hospitals that turn into charnel houses.  Entire cities evacuated and their populations dying on their frantic attempts to escape to nowhere.

No, this isn't a movie review of the latest mega-disaster flick.  It is a fairly realistic scenario of what could have happened on July 23, 2012, if a certain cluster of sunspots had been facing directly toward the earth, rather than pointing out away from us toward a space probe called STEREO A.  As it happened, STEREO A had a front-row seat at a performance that engineers hope we will never witness here—but one that could happen any time.

What happened that day was not just one, but two coronal mass ejections (CMEs).  Often associated with, but distinct from, the brilliant solar flares that arc above the sun's surface every now and then, coronal mass ejections contain the energy of millions of nuclear bombs and send tons of charged particles flying out into space.  Entangled with the particles are spaghetti-plates full of tangled magnetic field lines, and the magnetic fields are what can damage our electrical and mechanical infrastructure. 

When a CME encounters the earth's magnetic field, the normally fairly stable domestic field jumps around like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.  And as every electrical engineer knows, changing magnetic fields near conductors induce voltages and currents in those conductors.  Substitute "power lines" and "pipelines" for "conductors" and you begin to see the problem. 

While these structures are protected against the normal kinds of mishaps that can befall them—lightning in the case of power lines, breaks in the case of pipelines—relatively few such installations are also protected against the unique sort of stresses that a record-breaking geomagnetic storm can induce.  And geomagnetic storms, along with brilliant auroras near the polar regions, are what happens when a large CME hits the earth. 

The last major geomagnetic storm that did considerable damage occurred in 2003, knocking out a series of electric-grid transformers in Sweden.  Utility operators usually have on hand one or two spare transmission transformers­—the big boxes in substations that cost upwards of millions of dollars each—but not a dozen.  And even if they did, hauling those multi-ton pieces of gear around the country to replace ones burned out by a geomagnetic storm is not the light task of a few hours' time.  Multiply this actual event by a factor of two or ten or twenty, and you can see how bad things could get.

What can be done from an engineering point of view to protect infrastructure assets from a large geomagnetic storm?  We will concentrate on the protection of the electric grid, since its loss would be by far more immediately consequential than the loss of pipelines.

If grid operators are given enough warning, they can call for a pre-emptive voluntary blackout that disconnects vulnerable transformers from the long lines that will pick up the high currents and voltages that would otherwise cause damage.  The problem with this is, nobody wants to be the one to decide to pull the switch, especially if the storm turns out to be less severe than expected.  Another problem is that there is currently no good way to predict the exact effects of a given geomagnetic storm on a particular part of the grid.  So the safe thing to do would be to shut down the whole system for the duration of the storm, which usually lasts only a few hours.  But a region-wide blackout lasting several hours is a serious disruption of its own, and few grid operators are currently willing to do such a thing based on only the fuzzy and general forecasts of geomagnetic storms that are presently available.

Another alternative is to install special protective gear designed to bypass the large energy generated in power grids by geomagnetic storms.  This would allow the grid to keep working right through the storm, but has the disadvantage of costing millions of dollars and not doing a blessed thing until the storm hits.  This reminds me of those vending machines you used to see at airports where you could buy $50,000 of life insurance for something like a quarter, valid only during your upcoming flight.  I suppose somebody may have collected on one of those policies, but I doubt it.  Still, this would be the safest course, all things considered.

Healthy societies have institutions that look ahead to unlikely eventualities, so that when they happen, as sooner or later they surely will, the society rolls through the crisis while maybe sustaining some damage, but otherwise stays intact.  The closest we have come in the U. S. to a crisis like the one a geomagnetic storm might cause was Hurricane Katrina, the one that devastated New Orleans in 2005.  Sad to say, New Orleans was grossly unprepared for Katrina.  Its infrastructure of dikes and canals had been neglected for decades, despite warnings that if something like Katrina hit, large parts of the city would be underwater, and they were.  Over 1,800 people died in a disaster that was, fortunately, of limited geographic extent.  Multiply Katrina by ten or twenty times the area, and you can begin to see what a perfect geomagnetic storm might do.

In a recent issue of National Review, Christopher DeMuth points out that past generations of U. S. citizens allowed the federal government to go into debt, but always for a reason that was forward-looking:  to win a war, for example, or to finance infrastructure improvements such as canals, railroads, and interstate highways.  By contrast, today we are continually warned of our crumbling infrastructure, but the massive debt we are incurring is going mainly for payments to persons—consumption, in other words, not investment for the future. 

The amount of money it would take to improve geomagnetic-storm forecasting and power-grid protection to the point that we could cross a geomagnetic-storm disaster off our list of things to worry about, is not large.  Whether public or private funds, or a combination, should pay for it is not the question.  The question is whether society still has enough foresight to avoid needless disasters—or whether we have to experience them first before we do anything about them.

Sources:  A good brief description of the nearly-disastrous CME event of July 23, 2012 was carried online by IEEE Spectrum at  The technical paper on which the report was based is Liu, Y. D. et al. "Observations of an extreme storm in interplanetary space caused by successive coronal mass ejections." Nature Communications 5:3481 (doi: 10.1038/ncomms4481) (2014).  The problem has not gone entirely unnoticed by government officials, as the threat evaluation report on geomagnetic storms at the U. S. Department of Homeland Security found at shows.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on coronal mass ejections, solar rotation, and Hurricane Katrina.  Christopher DeMuth's article "Our Democratic Debt" appeared on pp. 28-34 of the July 21, 2014 issue of National Review.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Israel's Iron Dome and the Ethics of War

Just before I wrote this, I learned that a cease-fire negotiated last Friday between Israel and Hamas collapsed after less than two hours.  For the last few weeks, the Gaza-based Hamas organization has been shooting Grad-type rockets at Israel, and Israel has lately been responding both with aerial attacks and ground action in Gaza itself.  By many reports, the damage done by the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel would be much worse if it were not for Israel's air-defense system called Iron Dome.  According to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Iron Dome succeeds in intercepting about 80% of rockets that come within its zone of protection, and is one reason why civilian casualties in Israel from the rocket attacks have been so low. 

The ethics of the Israeli-Hamas conflict is, shall we say, outside the scope of this blog.  Rather, I would like to look at the ethics of war as it concerns engineers, with Iron Dome as a case in point.  From the viewpoint of a student about to graduate from engineering school, should you consider job offers from military contractors?  And if not, why not?  Just to make it interesting, let's say you're graduating from the Technion, Israel's premier technology university.  What choices do you face regarding the military and working for military contractors?

As many people know, there is universal conscription in Israel.  Theoretically, all men over the age of 18 serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) for three years (two for women).  It's not as universal as it sounds:  according to Wikipedia, about half of those drafted manage to avoid serving for various reasons having to do with religious exemptions, being members of exempted communities, or even by being a conscientious objector.  To avoid service, a conscientious objector (CO) has to have a principled opposition to all war and conflict, not just particular conflicts that the IDF is engaged in.  And this is not an easy path to tread:  one study of applicants for CO status in Israel from around 2000 found that only about ten percent of applicants were granted the exemption.

So, say you've served your three years in the IDF and you now want to have nothing to do with the military ever again.  There's plenty of job opportunities in technical fields in Israel for non-defense work.  You could work for Given Imaging, for example.  They're a medical-device outfit that has pioneered the development of capsule endoscopy:  swallowable video cameras, to be specific.  A cousin of mine took one of these as a part of an investigation of why he was having acid reflux.  I don't think the results wound up on YouTube, but if there had been anything serious wrong, the pictures would have been courtesy Given Imaging, or maybe one of their imitators.

But wait—you look into the background of Given Imaging, and you find that it's actually a spinoff from a company that specializes in commercializing military technology.  Look hard enough, and you find that the same organization that makes Iron Dome also spun off the medical firm Given Imaging.  Originally called the Science Corps at Israel's founding in 1948, the government-funded military R&D organization was renamed Rafael in 1958, and restructured as a profit-making, though still government-owned, company in 2002, now known as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.  As anyone striving for total purity in association or support will find, if you trace money, influence, or history back far enough, sooner or later you'll find something you don't like.

So let's take the opposite view:  say your sister was one of the few Israeli civilians killed by a Grad rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza, and you'd like to do what you can to prevent it from happening again.  If you had joined Rafael back in 2007, you could have gotten in on the ground floor of the development of Iron Dome.  The idea of a rocket defense system occurred to the IDF long before then, but American advisers looked at the relatively small Rafael organization in the relatively small country of Israel and told the Israelis not to waste their time, that such an idea was "doomed to fail."  Antimissile defense systems developed by the U. S. have a checkered past, to be sure, and the only one that seemed to have had a major effect on global politics—Star Wars in the 1980s—was never actually deployed fully.  When President Reagan just threatened to build it, it scared the socks off the USSR.  And the mere threat of making an enemy's weapons useless is often a good strategic weapon of its own.

But the threats Israel was experiencing in recent years were not theoretical.  Grad rockets were originally developed by the USSR in the 1960s as dumb weapons whose inaccuracy (they are less aimable than even conventional gun-fired shells) is intended to be overcome by sheer numbers.  Nobody knows where a Grad rocket will fall, including those who fire them.  These types of rockets make a good target for a sophisticated radar-guided defense system like Iron Dome, whose optical-tracking missiles can home in on a target and explode it before it reaches the ground.  Of course, the resulting debris don't just go away—even after a successful interception, you will have pieces of hot scrap metal falling to the ground, which can be inconvenient, to say the least.  But what you won't have is 6 to 22 kg (14 to 50 pounds) of high explosive propelling shrapnel all around your back yard, which is what a Grad rocket can do if it lands and explodes.

The choice of an engineering career is always an interesting one, but for Israeli engineering graduates these days, it must be especially so.   There is room in the discipline of engineering for those who believe wholeheartedly in war, for those who oppose war with every fiber of their being, and for those who may not want to work on systems that actually kill people, but who want to defend innocent lives against attacks.  Iron Dome looks like a lifesaver to me, and whatever your beliefs about the Israel-Hamas conflict in general, I think most engineers would agree that the system is a fine piece of work.

Sources:  I referred to Wikipedia articles with the following titles:  Iron Dome, Conscription in Israel, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Hamas.  The report on the short-lived ceasefire was carried online by CNN at