Monday, April 14, 2014

Dealing with Climate Change: Getting There from Here

Engineers are people of action, not just words.  But even if we believe what we are often told about climate change, it's not at all clear what we should do about it.

Last week, I attended a meeting at which a highly credentialed professional meteorologist outlined the history of the science of climate change from the nineteenth century to the present.  Prof. Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M's Department of Atmospheric Sciences described how as long ago as the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that the small concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (then around 300 parts per million) had a disproportionate effect on the earth's temperature.  Regular monitoring of this concentration began in the 1950s, and by then it was clearly understood that more carbon dioxide means higher temperatures.  Dr. Dessler said that for at least fifty years, there has been a consensus that the present human-caused increase in carbon dioxide in the air will eventually lead to a rise in global average temperatures of "a few degrees C." 

So far I was with him.  Other things being equal (which they never are), more greenhouse gases in the air (of which carbon dioxide is one) means the planet gets warmer.  But then he started talking about cigarette smoking, and how the tobacco industry mounted a cynical disinformation campaign in the 1960s against the overwhelming evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease.  Because it took about forty years for the scientific truth to change public policies (you began to see smoke-free campuses and workplaces only about ten years ago), Dr. Dessler thinks it may take that long for the U. S. to get serious about global warming.  Personally, I think it will take longer than that, because the two cases are more different than they are similar.

As someone else in the audience pointed out, smoking has highly specific individual consequences.  As long ago as 1964, anyone who read a newspaper knew that by smoking, you made it a lot more likely that you would die early and fast, the way my father died of lung cancer at 57 only a year after he was diagnosed.  If driving a Humvee increased your personal chances of having your own house wrecked by a tornado by the same degree as smoking increases your chances of causing lung cancer, what would happen?  Well, for one thing, Humvee owners would have a lot of trouble getting home insurance.  And sales of Humvees would fall.

But in contrast to the smoking-cancer tie-in, the actions that contribute to climate change, and the possible (I emphasize "possible") consequences, are about as far removed as you can get and still stay on the same planet.  From what little I know about the matter, it appears that the most widespread and likely consequence of letting the earth's average temperature rise a few degrees Celsius is that a lot of ice will melt, water will expand, and the ocean's average levels will rise.  Let's leave aside all the other stuff—species extinction, storms, and other changes in weather patterns—and concentrate on just that one thing.

About 44% of the world's population in 2010 lived within 150 km (94 miles) of the sea.  And many of the world's most populous cities are coastal ones, or so close to the coast that a significant rise in ocean level would cause them major problems.  Now if all the ice in Antarctica melted, the ocean's level would rise some 61 meters (200 feet).  So in that case, good-bye Hong Kong, New York, and Florida.  But to my knowledge, no serious scientist has proposed that the entire ice sheet covering Antarctica is going to melt because of human-induced climate change.  So the fact is that you have a range of estimates of how much the oceans will rise, but all of them are much less than 61 meters.  They may be well-educated estimates, but that's all they are—estimates.

So instead of a single increased chance that you, individually, will suffer about the most serious consequence you can encounter—death—as a result of your individual actions, your individual motivation to do something about climate change is that somebody, somewhere, possibly but not certainly near a coastline, might eventually have to move or suffer an increased chance of getting flooded out in a storm.  And that person might be you, but not for another few decades, anyway.  And even if you become a hyper-climate-conscious zero-carbon-footprint fanatic, your solitary actions will be fruitless unless billions of people all across the world do likewise, or at least move in that direction.

Personal versus impersonal, individual versus transnational, death versus some fuzzy probabilistic consequence for many people you will never meet—at the point of political action, the analogy between smoking and burning fossil fuels collapses.  There is also the little matter of the difference in economic importance of the two industries in question.  If the entire tobacco industry vanished tomorrow, life could go on more or less normally for most of us, but if the entire fossil-fuel industry vanished tomorrow, a large number of us would die in a matter of weeks for lack of basic necessities.  That is a big downside cost to the proposal to something about climate change fast.

Prof. Dessler sees a global carbon tax as the way forward.  He thinks if the U. S. slapped a big carbon tax on imports, that the rest of the world would fall in line and come along quietly.  A global tax high enough to put significant brakes on fossil fuel consumption now would likely do something similar to what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 did.  Most economists believe that those extremely high U. S. tariffs contributed significantly to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, and punitive carbon taxes imposed on countries that don't get in line with reduction in fossil-fuel use would probably trigger a global depression that would make the 1930s one look like a mild headache in comparison.

From an engineering point of view, achieving the goal of transitioning from a global economy based on fossil fuels to one in which fossil-fuel use is cut to a small fraction of its present rate is logically possible.  But achieving it in a way that is just and fair, and imposes hardships less than those otherwise suffered from whatever climate change would result, is an immensely challenging technical and political task, and would require a degree of coordination and cooperation that is unprecedented in world history. 

Maybe it will happen.  But if history is any guide, something really awful, and unequivocally attributable to climate change, will first have to happen worldwide, in order to create the political will to act.

Sources:  Prof. Andrew Dessler spoke at the Lone Star Historians of Science meeting at Texas A&M University on Apr. 11, 2014.  I referred to Charles Krauthammer's column on climate change carried by the Washington Post on Feb. 20, 2014 at, and Daniel Yergin's history of climate change at 
The statistic about ocean levels and Antarctica is from  And for how a qualified opponent of the conventional view of climate change, Prof. William Happer, was received at another professional meeting, see my blog "When Scientists Aren't Scientists" on Oct. 7, 2013.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Too Little Too Late?

How much stuff do you carry on your keyring?  Besides keys, I mean.  Some minimalists like my wife carry car keys separately from other keys, with nothing attached except maybe a small plastic tag to make it easier to find in her purse.  Other people, many of whom are younger, may carry a whole bundle of stuff on their keyrings:  those little barcode cards that give you discounts at retailers, miniature plastic poodles, handcrafted bits of knitted yarn, and I don't know what all.  But it probably never occurred to you to think that a heavy keyring could be hazardous to your health. 

Brooke Melton probably wasn't thinking of her keyring one rainy March night in 2010.  She was driving her 2005 GM Cobalt when the ignition switch suddenly moved from "run" to "accessory."  This had the unfortunate effects of killing the engine, disabling the power steering, and turning off the airbags.  The sudden loss of power caused Melton to cross into oncoming traffic.  The Cobalt crashed into another car at 58 mph and wound up in a creek, killing Melton and starting a chain of events that revealed the true cause of more than a dozen similar crashes going back more than half a decade.

As long ago as 2001, engineers at General Motors knew that a certain model of ignition switch assembly that was later used on a number of models had a problem.  The mechanical design of an ignition switch is a compromise, as are so many things in engineering.  Most mechanical ignition switches use a device called a detent, which divides the continuous rotation of the switch that would occur without the detent into a small number of discrete positions, typically four:  "off", "accessory", "run" and "start."  If the detent provides too much resistance, the switch will be hard to turn and might eventually wear so much that it would fail to work at all.  But if the torque (twisting motion) required to move the switch is too small, you take the risk that unbalanced forces resulting from heavy stuff on a keyring, for instance, may spontaneously make the switch turn from one position to the other.  This is apparently what happened to Brooke Melton and the 12 or more other drivers who died in ignition-failure accidents in GM cars having the suspect assembly.

At this remove, it is obvious what GM should have done.  The guilty part, No. 10392423, should have been redesigned with a more forceful switch detent plunger—a 57-cent piece that consists of a rounded plastic cylinder backed by a coil spring.  It is the force exerted by this plunger that sets the amount of torque needed to turn the ignition key from one position to the next.  Changing the spring fixes the problem by increasing the torque needed to turn the key from "run" to "accessory."  Then, the ignition assembly part number, or some documentation somewhere, should have been changed to reflect the fact that the new part was substantially different.  And GM should have recalled however many cars they had sold with the defective ignition switch and replaced them free of charge. 

If this had been done early, before too many cars had been sold with the defective ignition, it would have cost something, but the earlier such things are dealt with properly the less expensive they are.  But at the time, a few other things were happening at GM that provided distractions, namely, bankruptcy.  So matters drifted along, and at some point, Delphi (the company that makes the switch in Mexico for GM) changed the plunger to fix the problem.  There is contradictory information as to whether Ray DiGiorgio, a GM engineer, approved a design change in April of 2006 making this fix.  He has testified that he did not, but a Congressional committee claims it has documentation showing that he did.  Whatever was done in 2006, it had no effect on the thousands, if not millions, of cars already on the road at that time with defective switches.

After Brooke Melton's death, her parents decided to sue GM.  Their lawyer, Lance Cooper, hired a consulting materials engineer named Mark Hood to look into why the ignition turned off—an event that was documented by the car's black box.  After plowing through numerous Cobalts of various vintages in junkyards, he discovered that the critical plunger had been silently altered around 2006 or 2007.  Switches made before then took less torque to turn off than the newer switches.  Armed with these facts, Cooper took depositions from GE engineers and reached a settlement with the firm.  But the publicity surrounding the lawsuit attracted enough attention that others with similar crash incidents on their hands began looking into the matter.  And just last week, GM CEO Mary Barra testified before Congress about the whole thing.

To her credit, Barra took action to issue massive recalls, affecting some six million cars, on this and other problems within weeks after learning about them when she took the helm of GM in January of this year.  But these recalls are too late for Melton and at least a dozen others who died in ignition-related crashes of GM cars.  Although the investigations are continuing, it appears that at least one GM engineer may have lied under oath about the matter. 

This story has heroes and villains, although most engineering ethics cases are not black and white, including this one.  Consulting engineer Hood and GM CEO Barra appear to have done the right things with what they learned.  Investigations may prove that the GM engineers involved with the faulty ignition switch may have made the best decisions they could have, based on the information they had available.  No automaker can afford to do as much prototype testing as they would like.  It took making and selling thousands of cars to reveal that a few people with exceptionally heavy keyrings could end up getting killed by a switch that took just a little less torque than usual. 

But the truly blameworthy actions happened after GM began receiving reports of such ignition-caused crashes.  One fatal accident due to a defect that can occur under certain conditions should be looked into, and if necessary, a recall—not just a service advisory, which GM issued about the matter in 2005—should be issued. 

This situation shows that corporations, like people,  have good times and some not so good times.  GM's financial troubles possibly dissuaded decision-makers from issuing the massive recall that would have been needed to fix the ignition defect early, before more defective cars were sold.  But the result has been an even larger and more costly recall later.  Let's hope GM can fix all of the defective ignitions soon and move on, a sadder but wiser organization.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article "2014 General Motors recall," as well as the following online news articles.  CNN reported on the problem at  Engineer Mark Hood's detective work is described at  Also, a Reuters article at correctly describes the critical component as a "detent" plunger (it has been elsewhere described incorrectly as an "indent" plunger).  And National Public Radio published a helpful timeline of the issue at 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Do You Want CNN or ESPN With That Burger?

Eating out is something that lots of Americans do, and watching TV is something else that lots of Americans do.  But increasingly these days, if you choose to eat in a restaurant, you are more or less obliged to watch TV too. And in my opinion, that is an obligation which deserves more public discussion and consideration than it has received up to now.

In the last few years, a number of factors have combined to lead to the proliferation of TVs in dining establishments of increasingly mainstream and even upscale reputation.  I think the first place I noticed them in was a McDonald's in a small Texas town we were driving through, six or eight years ago.  This was when flat-screen TVs were fairly new. The mounting of such a TV on the wall is a simple operation, which is probably one technical reason they are spreading in public places so fast.  (Try screwing an old-fashioned forty-pound non-flat-screen TV to the wall with only three bolts and see how long it stays up.)  Few people go to McDonald's with the express purpose of having deep, meaningful conversations.  At the time, I didn't much mind losing whatever solitude might otherwise have been available, and being subjected to MTV while I consumed my hamburger as fast as I could before going to the next thing, which is often the way people eat at fast-food places anyway.

But the next significant video intrusion into my dining-out experience was at the Luby's we go to every Friday night.  For those readers who are not Texans, I should explain that Luby's is a cafeteria chain that caters to older Southerners for whom cafeteria dining is a positive pleasure, and not a grim necessity you have to bear up under because you're stuck in a corporate office, or a hospital, or a prison, where there isn't anything better.  I'm not personally old enough to favor Luby's over a restaurant where they actually bring the food to your table, but my wife's father lives with us, and it's his favorite place in the world to eat out, so that's where we typically go.

About a year or two ago, I was dismayed to arrive in their large dining area only to find that a large clock on the wall had been replaced by a good-sized flat-screen TV.  Not only that, but there were similar TVs on all four walls, so that no matter where you sat, there was one in your field of vision.  Two were kept tuned to one of the ESPN channels, and two more to CNN.  The sound wasn't loud enough to overpower average conversation, but it didn't need to be:  closed captioning took care of that.

I don't know if you've tried ignoring a TV in your field of view, but it's not easy.  Advertisers know that the brightly colored moving images on the screen attract the eye by appealing to the part of the brain we have in common with lizards and other lower animals.  It takes constant concentration in order to avoid falling almost unconsciously into the mode of gazing unthinkingly at the screen, even if your wife or your father-in-law is talking to you.  And that can lead to other problems.

The journalist and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton had something to say about a similar trend, though he was writing in the 1920s.  Apparently, there was a post-World-War-I fad in England of hiring a band to play at the larger restaurants.  In a column entitled "On Pleasure-seeking" he said "The fashion of having very loud music during meals in restaurants and hotels seems to me a perfect example of this chaotic attempt to have everything at once and do everything at once."  The phrase "multitasking" had not been invented yet, but that is exactly what Chesterton is talking about.

Restaurant owners don't spend money without a reason, and there must be some felt or perceived need on the part of their customers, that the restaurateurs are satisfying by putting up TVs everywhere.  One food blog I read on the topic commented that it's mainly the younger people who are driving this trend, but most of the younger people I see in Luby's are there by compulsion, not choice, taking their mothers out on Mother's Day or some such thing.  Maybe the TVs showed up because of a command from the Luby's headquarters in Houston inspired by fear that if Luby's doesn't follow the trend, they'll be left behind and eventually shunned like a restaurant would be today if it refused to install electric lights. 

Or maybe it's just a much later stage in the casualization of public culture that has been going on ever since the 1960s.  I have a confession to make.  I may be part of the generation that caused the problem.

The first TV my family ever owned was a big, heavy RCA unit that was deeper than it was wide or tall.  It sat in the living room where my dad planted it when he brought it home, and it stayed put until the day its picture tube died, which back then was like having the transmission go out on your car—time for a new one.  The new TV, which was much slimmer, came with a gold-plated steel cart on wheels and its own rabbit ears, which meant it wasn't tied to the place where the antenna wires came through the wall from the roof.  And one of the first things my father did with it was to roll it into the kitchen so we could watch TV at mealtimes, possibly even suppertime.  That was in 1962.

Half a century later, everybody dresses like they've just gotten out of bed, and they go out to eat and watch TV while they eat, just like do at home.  As ethical matters go, this is definitely small beer, but if this trend continues, it will do its part to further erode the dying art of conversation in congenial settings.

Sources:  The Chesterton quotation is from his Generally Speaking (London:  Methuen & Co., 1928), p. 141.  I referred to the Wikipedia article on Luby's Restaurants, and found a number of food blogs on the topic of TVs in restaurants.  The most vivid one has a URL that I can't repeat here verbatim because this is a family blog, but you can figure it out:***ing_televisions.php.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Ethics of Patents: Patrolling the Patent Trolls

As most engineers know, the U. S. patent system is intended to protect the inventor's rights in an invention.  A patent holder has exclusive rights to make, sell, or license an invention for a limited period of time (currently 20 years).  This is a compromise between two extremes:  the free-for-all extreme in which no patent law exists and anyone who can figure out an invention can copy it and make it without incurring development costs, and the perpetual-monopoly extreme in which patents would last forever and nobody else could ever make the invention. 

Most compromises need adjusting as circumstances change, and patent law is no exception.  According to U. S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the worst current problems in patent law is the growing number of so-called "patent trolls."  Who qualifies as a patent troll?  It probably depends on who you ask.  If you ask someone at Apple Computer, which is named as the defendant in more cases filed by patent trolls than any other U. S. firm, Apple will probably tell you that a patent troll is a person or organization that acquires a patent solely for the purpose of suing a deep-pocketed firm such as Apple. 

For that matter, any patent is nothing more than a license to sue.  This is because, at least in the U. S., patent infringement is a violation of civil law, not criminal law.  But with full-blown patent infringement cases complete with a jury costing upwards of $1 million, and current laws that allow the plaintiff to conceal the details of the accusations until later in the legal process, the defendant named in a patent troll's lawsuit usually has only two choices:  (1)  call the plaintiff's bluff and go to trial, knowing you might lose, and even if you win it will cost you a megabuck or more, or (2) settle out of court without seeing the details, and write off the six-figure settlement expense as just a cost of doing business. 

Of course, patent trolls may view the situation differently.  Some legitimate inventors do not have the financial backing to found a company in competition with one of the big boys, and patent litigation may be their only hope of profiting from their invention.  But if an individual or group clearly has no intention of making or using the patented item, and is formed for the sole purpose of pursuing patent litigation based on dubious claims, you can be fairly sure you are dealing with a patent troll.

Sen. Cornyn's proposed changes would move the law in what he thinks is a fairer direction.  For the first time, plaintiffs (i. e. patent trolls) would have to reveal their accusations up front in enough detail so that the entity being sued could make an informed decision as to the likelihood that a full-scale lawsuit would succeed.  With this and other changes, the hope is that frivolous and baseless patent suits that amount to little more than legalized blackmail would disappear from court dockets, while leaving the more substantial cases in place. 

Like any change in the law, the proposed legislation may have unintended consequences.  But to find out what they are, we'd first have to pass it into law.  Somewhat surprisingly, the ideas behind the Republican Sen. Cornyn's proposal have been endorsed by President Obama, and Cornyn cites the U. S. Senate as the main roadblock, which under the control of the Democratic Party has so far not acted on the legislation.  We have noted the sclerotic state of Congress elsewhere, and will simply express here the hope that the Senate will do the right thing and pass Sen. Cornyn's legislation, if it will do as much good as he says it will.

One advantage to doing a blog for a long time (we observed our eight-year anniversary a couple of weeks ago) is that you can note long-term trends, and call for changes, and actually see them happen after a while, sometimes.  Back in 2006, the first year of this blog, I discussed a patent issue not entirely unlike the current one of patent trolls:  the situation of "submarine patents."  Until 2000, the content of a patent filing was a deep secret between the person who filed the patent application and the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office.  The secret was revealed to the public at the end of the process, only after the patent was issued, so some inventors became skilled in intentionally delaying the granting of a patent in order to keep it secret until its contents became something valuable.  Then, the patent submariner would allow the patent to issue and try to sue the pants off some large firm that was profiting from a technology at least remotely related to the now-surfaced patent. 

According to Wikipedia, one of the most skilled practitioners of this art was an independent inventor by the name of Jerome H. Lemelson.  Lemelson was without question a clever and legitimate inventor, who clearly began his career as a fruitful developer of original ideas which he licensed to various firms, mostly in the areas of machine vision.  But as time went on, he developed habits which his critics began to describe as filing for submarine patents, although Lemelson always denied the accusations.  He also became very wealthy, and after his death his estate contributed to the formation of the Lemelson Foundation with the purpose of encouraging invention and innovation by individuals.  The Foundation's National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) sponsors competitions and grants to teams of college students and faculty members interested in developing inventions, and has no doubt done a lot toward encouraging such activities over the years since Lemelson's death in 1997.  As Lemelson no doubt intended, any bad memories or ill will created by his patent litigation activities during his lifetime are fading in the light of the good his money is doing after his passing.

As it happened, when I wrote about submarine patents in 2006, they were already passing from the scene, because in 2000 the Patent Office began revealing the contents of most applications no longer than eighteen months after filing.  So it is no longer possible to do the submarine-patent dodge today, at least in the U. S. 

If he were still around, Lemelson might not like the tone of Sen. Cornyn's proposed changes to patent law.  Lemelson always sided with the underdog in a patent fight, and anything that would tend to make the independent inventor's lawsuits harder to prosecute against major firms is something he would probably oppose.  But law is inherently a balancing act, and if the U. S. Senate sees fit to pass the anti-patent-troll legislation, maybe in another eight years I can look back and see how well it did what it was supposed to do.  But don't hold your breath.

Sources:  Sen. John Cornyn's editorial "It's time to stop patent abuse with bipartisan Senate support" appeared in the Mar. 15, 2014 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on Jerome H. Lemelson, submarine patents, patent trolls, and the term of U. S. patents.  The NCIIA website is

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Radio Shack: Thanks For The Memories

When leather-hobby-store owner Charles Tandy bought an anemic chain of nine radio-parts retail stores in Massachusetts for only $300,000 in 1963, he had a vision for what he could do with the brand.  The embodiment of that vision began when he opened the first Radio Shack store outside of New England on West Seventh Street in Fort Worth, Texas.  Among the crowds of customers who flocked into the new store to see the latest in stereos and electronics hobby products was a small boy with a burr haircut and an expression on his face that would lead one to believe he thought he had died and gone to Heaven.  That was me.

Any institution that attracts people to the field of engineering is doing good, at least in my engineering ethics book.  And over the past five decades, I would venture to guess that the huge international chain of Radio Shack stores has fostered the careers of more electrical engineers than any government program sponsored by the likes of the National Science Foundation.  It appears that the Shack's glory days are over, judging by last week's announcement that the firm is shedding about 1100 of its nearly 5200 U. S. locations.  For the last several years, I have sadly watched the slow decline of a firm that grew along with the cohort of electronics hobbyists who came to maturity in the 1960s and 70s and went on to revolutionize much of modern life.

The phenomenon of a hobby activity becoming a matter of urgent national interest happens fairly rarely.  It happened during World War II when a critical need for radio operators who knew Morse Code and radio technology led defense recruiters to the ranks of amateur radio operators, who excelled in both.  And one of the leading suppliers of equipment and parts to radio hams back then was the Radio Shack store of Boston, Massachusetts, named after the customary naval term for a ship's radio room.

For various reasons, the company fell on hard times during the 1950s, but leather-goods entrepreneur Tandy had the foresight, or good luck, to perceive that there was a big future in retail electronics when he bought the chain in 1963.  The success of the first new store in Fort Worth under Tandy's ownership led to a growing number of stores nationwide, and pretty soon anyone in a mid-size U. S. city no longer had to rely on slow mail ordering from catalogs to get a wide variety of electronics parts and kits, including tubes for the notoriously unreliable TV sets of the era. 

If every dollar I've ever spent at Radio Shack had been invested in stocks instead, I'd probably be richer financially, but infinitely poorer intellectually.  As I'm sure is the case with thousands of electrical engineers of my generation, the electronics hobby that the local Radio Shack made possible for me turned into a career.  And up through at least 2000, Radio Shack was the first place I thought of whenever I needed ordinary electronics parts.

But time goes on.  While the Shack entered the field of personal computers very early, in 1977 with the historic TRS-80, they missed the chance to become an established player in the field.  Since then, electronics has become so sophisticated and complex that very few people outside the classroom actually build electronic circuits for fun anymore (and maybe not for fun in the classroom, either).  This complexity is a good thing for electronics consumers, but it has ended the golden age of the hobby.  At its peak, a teenager with a soldering iron and a set of plans could turn out anything you could buy off the shelf from a store, ranging from a crystal radio to a color TV (the last with the aid of another company from a bygone era, Heathkit). 

Teaching electrical engineering as I do, I have the opportunity to learn how students today become interested in the field.  While I have not taken any scientific surveys on the matter, my impression is that most of our students don't narrow down their career choice until they get to college, where electrical engineering appeals to them as a profession that combines interesting work with a reasonably good chance of getting a job after graduation.  The ones who tinkered with electronics in high school or earlier are relatively rare, but stand out for their superior ability to do hands-on work in many cases. 

There are numerous institutional efforts going on these days to increase the ranks of students interested in STEM, which is now the standard acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math education.  Both government and private enterprises sponsor programs such as the FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which is designed to bring together high-school students and professional engineers as volunteers in robot designs that are different every year.  The only things like this that were available when I was that age were high-school science fairs and Explorer Scouts, if you happened to be living near an Explorer post that specialized in such things.  I joined such a post, and benefited greatly from the knowledge that I wasn't the only teenage boy in Fort Worth who would rather spend an evening with oscilloscopes and voltmeters than girls (for a long time, anyway). 

In the nature of things, it's hard to evaluate scientifically the good done by educational programs of this type.  Part of the payoff for those who organize them is the knowledge that the students involved are doing something that is socially and technically positive.  Whether or not they all go on to engineering careers is almost beside the point. 

But I doubt that any number of top-down organized programs and government grants will be able to replicate the spontaneous, grass-roots way the electronics hobbyists of my youth spread in numbers and accomplishments in the middle years of the twentieth century.  Part of the reason, I suspect, has to do with the overall decline in what you might call the average quality of life in families.  An engineer has to believe that what he or she does is based on reliable, objective scientific realities, and must have a personality that is agreeable to working in such an intellectual environment.  It may be the case that certain cultural periods just naturally produce more of that type of person than other cultural periods.  And we may be living through a period of time in which the engineering type of personality just doesn't show up as often as it used to. 

I'm not a sociologist, nor a business expert, and I can't predict what will happen to the future pool of engineering students, or Radio Shack in particular.  But nothing will change the firm's legacy of encouraging and providing for the happiness and enjoyment of thousands of hobbyists during the golden age of do-it-yourself electronics. 

Sources:  The news about Radio Shack's closing of 1100 stores was carried by numerous organizations, including CNN at  For those wanting to know more about the history of Radio Shack, you can consult (as I did) the Wikipedia article "Radio Shack" or an online collection of Radio Shack catalogs, including the first one issued in 1939, viewable at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Charles Tandy.  For more information about the FIRST robotics competition in the U. S., see

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Will The Fusion Sun Ever Rise?

Back when I was in high school almost fifty years ago, I attended a talk about fusion power.  The speaker explained how fusion reactors worked differently than fission reactors, and used only water as fuel instead of highly radioactive uranium or plutonium.  He spent a good bit of time on the difficulties standing in the way of commercial power generation with nuclear fusion reactors, and dwelled on how hard it was to keep a thin, extremely hot gas (plasma, really) from wriggling around and extinguishing itself on the chamber walls.  After his talk, I waited in line to ask him a question that had occurred to me:  whether you could apply feedback of some kind to stabilize the plasma?  He kindly told me that my idea was one of many "under consideration," and I went away with the sense that I could participate in a great human achievement in the future: the harnessing of fusion energy for peaceful purposes.  I don't recall exact figures, but I believe the speaker said that he hoped fusion power would become a practical reality in ten or twenty years.

Well, it's nearly half a century later, and nearly a century after British physicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington realized that smashing hydrogen nuclei together to make helium would yield an astonishing amount of energy.  My career led me in other directions than fusion research, and perhaps it's just as well, because fusion power is still like the glow that appears before the sunrise:  promising, but not delivering yet.  While there have been dozens of projects big and small (considering the scale of this type of research, I should say "big and bigger") in the intervening years, the frontrunner these days is an international collaboration called ITER.

ITER stands for "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor" and is also Latin for "the way," as in "iterate."  Although the machine itself is to be built in France, its finished components come from South Korea, Russia, India, Japan, China, the U. S., and other European nations as well.  The project has been going in some form or other since the 1990s, and so far about 15 billion euros (almost $21 billion US) have been spent.  The project's managers estimate it will be another six or seven years before they can flip the switch and expect anything good to happen, and another seven years or so before the unit could be used for commercial power generation.  That gets us to 2027.  If I'm still around then, I'll be 74.

Why have so many people spent so much time and effort on an idea that seems determined not to be born?  Its attraction is captured in a slogan that was popular in the early days of the promotion of fusion energy:  "too cheap to meter."  This phrase was originated in the days when the fuel cost of energy was the main concern, and fossil fuels were relatively expensive compared to water.  The deuterium in water, plus perhaps some lithium, which is not as cheap as it used to be but is still relatively abundant, are the only fuels needed for the type of thermonuclear fusion that is under development at ITER.  Ten thousand gallons of water, which would fit comfortably in a cube 12 feet (4 meters) on a side, contains about a gallon and a half of heavy water, the kind that contains deuterium.  I calculate that this much deuterium could provide enough electricity to run a thousand average households for over three years. 

Another advantage advertised for fusion is that it produces much less radioactive waste than nuclear fission reactors do.  Fission reactors are the kind we currently use for electric power generation commercially.  Fusion makes no long-lasting radioisotopes to bury for ten thousand years or otherwise dispose of inconveniently.  And the risk of meltdown or a violent explosion is practically nil.  It's taken the physicists eighty years to get close to getting it to run, and so you take away one little adjustment from the complex of conditions needed to operate the thing, and it just flashes and dies harmlessly.

With all these attractions, it's understandable that hordes of physicists and their funding sources have poured decades of effort and resources into the search for "ignition," which is their term for getting more energy out of the reaction than you put in.  If all you want is ignition and don't care about controlling it, that's easy—just steal a thermonuclear bomb, which has been around in one form or another since 1952.  It's the control part of the problem that has kept the promise of peaceful thermonuclear energy just out of reach for all these years.

I hate to be a spoilsport, but what if the complexity and maintenance of a commercial-grade fusion reactor is so high that, despite all the international efforts, the thing simply doesn't ever manage to pay for itself?  After all, paying the bills is the test of an engineering idea, and whatever the physicists say, the pursuit of fusion power has been as much an engineering effort as a physics effort.  The basic physics was figured out by 1950 or so—everything since then has been practical details.  Already, the ITER project is giving off bad signs of disregard for costs.  Currently, according to a recent report in the New Yorker, the project managers have no accurate estimate of how much it will cost to finish.  The thing is beginning to resemble the United Nations organization, and not in a good way.  It is becoming increasingly hard to imagine how a technology with such a scary financial record will ever be considered seriously by those who actually expect to make money from an investment before dying, even after the technical achievement of ignition has been accomplished.

The crystal ball is always cloudy, but wouldn't it be ironic if, just when ignition is achieved and the physicists at ITER break out the champagne, the rest of the world greets them not with a cheer but with a yawn?  "You mean we have to build more power lines across our back yards to use that so-called free energy?  You mean we have to pay X billion euros to retire the bonds it took to build this thing?  No, thanks."  As the curve of complexity and expense it takes to achieve nuclear fusion has been going up, the curve of what the world will tolerate in terms of a new major source of electricity has been going down.  For the sake of all those who have dedicated their professional lives to the cause of commercial nuclear fusion power, I hope that when and if we get it, we'll really want it enough to pay for it.

Sources:  Although I had not finished reading the article before this blog was completed, the part of Raffi Khatchadourian's article "A Star In A Bottle" in the Mar. 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker that I read was very informative.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on thermonuclear fusion, thermonuclear weapons, ITER, Arthur Eddington, nuclear fusion, and fusion energy.  The website by C. R. Nave at Georgia State University has a good summary of the basic fusion reactions used in fusion energy at

Monday, February 24, 2014

Is There Methanol In Your Car's Future?

Suppose that tomorrow you could get in your car, go down to the gas station, and choose between buying regular gas at $3.12 a gallon, or methanol at $2.08 a gallon.  You would know that the miles per gallon you get with methanol is only about 2/3 of what gasoline gives you.  But then you do the math:  if methanol is less than 2/3 the price of gasoline (including taxes), you're ahead mileage-wise.  And sure enough, two-thirds of $3.12 is $2.08 exactly. 

Then you think of all the nice consequences of burning methanol instead of gasoline.  Almost no carbon monoxide comes out your car's tailpipe when you burn methanol.  Other pollutants (including carcinogenic aromatic compounds that result from burning gasoline) are reduced or eliminated, and your carbon footprint per mile is decreased too, because methanol has fewer atoms of carbon per molecule than gasoline.  And every gallon of methanol you burn is a strike against the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC), because in the hypothetical methanol economy of the future, most methanol is made from U. S. fuel sources:  natural gas, coal, or even biomass sources can all be converted into methanol.  Knowing all this, you choose methanol. 

This little tale is more than a pipe dream.  The numbers are based on the hard realities of current gasoline prices at the pump and methanol prices, with taxes prorated according to the miles-per-gallon capability of the respective fuels, which would only be fair.  But a lot would have to change in both technology and the regulatory environment to bring this vision into reality.  In a recent issue of The New Atlantis, author Robert Zubrin promotes the methanol economy as a way of breaking the petroleum cartel enforced by OPEC, which he estimates make gas prices about 50% higher than otherwise.  As Zubrin points out, there are other reasons to adopt methanol besides geopolitical ones, but both technical and legal issues stand in the way of widespread adoption of methanol as a transportation fuel.

Methanol shares with ethanol a difference in chemistry between oxygen-bearing compounds such as alcohols and the purely hydrocarbon nature of gasoline.  Unlike gasoline, methanol is corrosive to the aluminum and steel commonly used in automotive fuel systems, so a new transportation infrastructure would have to be developed before methanol could be made widely available at the retail level.  Fortunately, new "flex-fuel" cars have systems made to handle methanol, ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of fuels, so there is no longer a major technical barrier to making cars that could burn methanol.  As Zubrin points out, however, there is a huge legal barrier:  the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

For reasons that seemed good at the time, the EPA adopted rules some years ago that prohibit the burning of any transportation fuel with more than a 2.7 percent oxygen content.  Methanol is about 50% oxygen, so the EPA would have to issue a special waiver of this rule before methanol could be sold as a motor fuel.  (It has already done this for the "E85" ethanol-gasoline mixtures available in some locations.)  The EPA also prohibits after-market modifications of older cars to burn methanol, but this rule could be changed as well.

I wish the price differential were greater between methanol and gasoline, because there would then be a powerful economic incentive to lower the legal and technical barriers to adoption of methanol.  As things stand, however, some hidden economic incentives may be pointing the other way.  Zubrin traces lots of money invested in auto companies to holders of vast OPEC-controlled petroleum investments, and speculates that any major move away from gasoline-burning cars by the major U. S. automakers would be squashed by the money-bag guys.  Personally, if I find a situation that can be explained either by (a) a vast secret conspiracy or (b) ignorance and inertia, I'll go for ignorance and inertia every time. 

The main reason we don't have a methanol economy right now is that the gasoline economy we have in place is not in an immediate crisis, and so the red-alert alarm bells that it takes to get the attention of government officials and elected representatives are silent.  The last time this country got really serious about alternative fuels was back in the early 1980s, when the price of crude oil spiked at around $100 a barrel (in 2011 dollars).  That motivated a spate of energy research that faded almost as quickly as the price of oil fell.  We are almost at that same price now again, but since it's happened before and we survived, nobody seems to be very motivated to do much about it this time.

Some readers may recall President George W. Bush's call for a hydrogen economy during his 2003 state-of-the-union address.  That scheme would have had some of the advantages of the methanol economy, including less pollution and less dependence on foreign fossil fuels.  But hydrogen, which is the lightest known gas at room temperature, is devilishly hard to transport and use for transportation, simply because it must be stored under extremely high pressures or liquefied at extremely cold temperatures.  While these measures are practical for exotic applications like interplanetary rockets, they were sufficiently challenging to smother the hydrogen economy in its diapers, so to speak, even if more politicians than the President had gotten behind it, which they by and large refrained from doing.

Methanol is much more practical than hydrogen as a motor fuel, and in fact is used exclusively in many race cars, where its naturally higher octane rating is an advantage.  I think the biggest single hurdle blocking the way to a methanol-fueled transportation system is not technical and not legal.  It's a lack of leadership.  The last time I can recall that a national leader resolved to do something definite and new, and had the support of most of the nation, was right after 9/11/2001 when President Bush said we were going into Afghanistan and whip some you-know-what.  But that state of the national mind lasted about three weeks.  Then Bush himself encouraged people to go shopping and revert to business as usual, and the moment was lost.

Man does not live by bread—or gasoline—or methanol—alone.  There are more important matters than the health of the economy, but you wouldn't think so by listening to most political rhetoric nowadays.  Zubrin's motivation in calling for a methanol economy is not strictly economic or technical.  He sees OPEC as a world-class force for evil that needs to be broken up, and I agree with him.  But there are so many domestic concerns that obsess the political class nowadays that it would take another 9/11-style crisis to get their attention.  And nobody wants that.

Sources:  Robert Zubrin's article "Why We Should Break OPEC Now" appeared in the No. 40 (Fall 2013) issue of The New Atlantis, pp. 19-32.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on methanol, the methanol economy, and fuel taxes in the United States.