Monday, October 19, 2020

Facebook's Dilemma

 

This week's New Yorker carried an article by Andrew Marantz whose main thrust was that Facebook is not doing a good job of moderating its content.  The result is that all sorts of people and groups that, in the view of many experts the reporter interviewed, should not be able to use the electronic megaphone of Facebook, are allowed to do so.  The list of such offenders is long:  the white-nationalist group Britain First; Jair Bolsonaro, "an autocratic Brazilian politician"; and of course, the President of the United States, Donald Trump. 

 

Facebook has an estimated 15,000 content moderators working around the world, constantly monitoring what its users post and taking down material that violates what the company calls its Implementation Standards.  Some decisions are easy:  you aren't allowed to post a picture of a baby smoking a cigarette, for example.  But others are harder, especially when the people doing the posting are prominent figures who are likely to generate lots of eye-time and thus advertising revenue for the company. 

 

The key to the dilemma that Facebook faces was expressed by former content moderator Chris Gray, who wrote a long memo to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shortly after leaving the company.  He accused Facebook of not being committed to content moderation and said, "There is no leadership, no clear moral compass."

 

Technology has allowed Facebook to achieve what in principle looks like a very good thing:  in the words of its stated mission, "bring the world closer together."  Unfortunately, when you get closer to some people, you wish you hadn't.  And while Zuckerberg is an unquestioned genius when it comes to extracting billions from a basically simple idea, he and his firm sometimes seem to have an oddly immature notion of human nature.

 

Author Marantz thinks that Facebook has never had a principled concern about the problem of dangerous content.  Instead, what motivates Facebook to take down posts is not the content itself, but bad publicity about the content.  And indeed, this hypothesis seems to fit the data pretty well.  Although the wacko-extremist group billing itself QAnon has been in the news for months, Facebook allowed its presence up until only last week, when public pressure on the company mounted to an apparently intolerable level. 

 

Facebook is a global company operating in a bewildering number of cultures, languages, and legal environments.  It may be instructive to imagine a pair of extreme alternatives that Facebook might choose to take instead of its present muddle of Implementation Standards, which makes nobody happy, including the people it bans. 

 

One alternative is to proclaim itself a common carrier, open to absolutely any content whatsoever, and attempt to hide behind the shelter of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  That act gives fairly broad protection to social-media companies from being held liable for what users post.  If you had a complaint about what you saw on Facebook under this regime, Facebook would tell you to go sue the person who posted it. 

 

The problem with this approach is that, unlike a true common carrier like the old Ma Bell, which couldn't be sued for what people happened to say over the telephone network, Facebook makes more money from postings that attract more attention, whether or not the attention is directed at something helpful or harmful.  So no matter how hard they tried to say it wasn't their problem, the world would know that by allowing neo-Nazis, pornographers, QAnon clones, terrorists, and whatever other horrors would come flocking onto an unmoderated Facebook, the company would be profiting thereby.  It is impossible to keep one's publicity skirts clean in such a circumstance.

 

The other extreme Facebook could try is to drop the pretense of being a common carrier altogether, and start acting like an old-fashioned newspaper, or probably more like thousands of newspapers.  A twentieth-century newspaper had character:  you knew pretty much the general kinds of stuff you would see in it, what point of view it took on a variety of questions, and what range of material you would be likely to see both in the editorial and the advertising sections.  If you didn't like the character one paper presented, you could always buy its competing paper, as up to the 1960s at least, most major metropolitan areas in the U. S. supported at least two dailies. 

 

The closest thing the old-fashioned newspaper had to what is now Facebook was the letters-to-the-editor section.  Nobody had a "right" to have their letter published.  You sent your letter in, and if the editors decided it was worth publishing, they ran it.  But it was carefully selected for content and mass appeal.  And not just anything got in.

 

Wait a minute, you say.  Where in the world would Facebook get the dozens of thousands of editors they'd need to pass on absolutely everything that gets published?  Well, I can't answer all your questions, but I will present one exhibit as an example:  Wikipedia.  Here is a high-quality dynamically updated encyclopedia with almost no infrastructure, subsisting on the work of thousands of volunteers.  No, it doesn't make money, but that's not the point.  My point is only that instead of paying a few thousand contract workers to subject themselves to the psychological tortures of the damned in culling out what Zuckerberg doesn't want to show up, go at it from the other end. 

 

Start by saying that nobody gets to post on Facebook unless one of our editors has passed judgment on it.  When the nutcases and terrorists of the world see their chances of posting dwindling to zero reliably, they'll find some other Internet-based way to cause trouble, never fear.  But Zuckerberg will be able to sleep at night knowing that instead of paying thousands of people to pull weeds all the time, he's started with a nice sterile garden and can plant only the flowers and vegetables he wants to.  And he'd still be able to make money.

 

The basic problem Facebook faces is that they are trying to be moral with close to zero consensus on what moral is.  At least if the company was divided up into lots of little domains, each with its clearly stated and enforced standards, you would know more or less what to expect when you logged into it, or rather, them. 

 

Sources:  The article "Explicit Content" by Andrew Marantz appeared on pp. 20-27 of the Oct. 19, 2020 issue of The New Yorker.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Sentiment, Calculation, and Prudence

 

Some engineers eventually become managers, and managers not only of engineering projects but of entire companies or even public organizations.  The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the question of how those in charge should allocate scarce resources (including technical resources) in the face of life-threatening situations.  And so I would like to bring you a brief summary sketch of three ways to do that:  two that are widely applied but fundamentally flawed, and one that is not so well known but can actually be applied successfully by ordinary mortals like ourselves.

 

None of this is original to me, nor to Robert Koons, the philosopher who describes them in a recent issue of First Things.  But originality is not usually a virtue in ethical reasoning, and in what follows, I'll try to show why.

 

In the 1700s, the Enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and David Hume devised what Koons calls a "difference-making" way of coming up with moral decisions.  The way this process works is best described by an example.  To properly assess an action or even the lack of an action, you must figure out the net difference it makes to the entire world.  Koons uses the example of a homicidal maniac who, if left to himself, is bound to go out and kill three people.  Suppose you know about this maniac: you can either do nothing, or choose to kill him.  If you do nothing, three people die; if you kill him, only one person dies.  Other things being equal, the world is a better place if fewer people die, so the logic of difference-making says you must kill him.

 

That's an extreme example, but it vividly illustrates the rational basis of two popular ways of making moral decisions involving public health.  Let's start with the commonly-heard statement that every human life is of infinite value.  Few would dare to argue openly with that contention, yet if you try to use it as a guide for practical action, you run into a dilemma.  Even something as simple as your driving a car to the grocery store exposes other people to some low but nonzero chance of being killed by your vehicle.  If you take the infinite value of human life seriously, you will never drive anywhere, because infinity times (whatever small chance there is of running over someone fatally) is still infinity.

 

Koons calls one way of dealing with this dilemma "sentimentalism."  He's not talking about people who watch mushy movies, but the fact that the sentimentalist, in the meaning he uses, abandons logic for emotion and settles for life more or less as it is, but feels bad whenever anybody dies.  Such people exist in a constant state of deploring the world's failure to live up to the ideal that every human life is of infinite worth, but otherwise derive little moral guidance from that principle in practice.

 

The more hard-headed among us say, "look, we can't act on infinities, so if we put a finite but large value on human life, at least we can get somewhere. " Applying the difference-making idea to human lives valued at, say, a million dollars, allows you to make calculations and cost-benefit tradeoffs.  Engineers are familiar with technical tradeoffs, so many engineers find this method of moral decision-making quite attractive.  But one of many problems with this approach is that it requires one to take a "view from nowhere":  there are no boundaries to the differences a given decision makes, other than the world itself.  Again, if we try to be truly logically consistent, calculating all the differences a given life-or-death decision makes is practically impossible.

 

At this point Koons calls Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to the rescue.  Operating under the umbrella of the classical virtue called prudence, Koons asks a given person in a given specific set of circumstances to judge the worthiness of a particular choice facing him or her.  He sets out four things that make a human act of choice worthy:  (1)  whether the human is applying rational thinking to the act, rather than random chance or instinct; (2) what the essential nature of the act is; (3)  what the purpose or end of the act is; and (4) what circumstances are relevant to the act. 

 

Unlike the difference-making approach, which imposes the impossible burden of near-omniscience on the decider, judging the worthiness of an action doesn't ask the person making the decision to know everything.  You simply take what you know about yourself, the kind of act you're contemplating, what you're trying to accomplish, and any other relevant facts, and then make up your mind.

 

In this process, some decisions are easy.  Should I kill an innocent person, a child, say?  Item (2) says no, killing innocent people is always wrong. 

 

Here's another situation Koons uses, but with an example drawn from my personal experience.  You walk outside your building past a bicycle owned by a person you really hate (call him Mr. SOB) and would like to see out of the way.  You notice that someone who hates Mr. SOB even more than you do has quietly disconnected the bike's brake cables, so that unless Mr. SOB checks his brakes before he gets on his bike, he will ride out into the street with no brakes and quite possibly get killed.  If you decide to say or do nothing, you have not committed any explicit act; you have simply refrained from doing anything.  But item (3) says your intentions in refraining were evil ones:  you hope the guy will get killed on his bike.  In this case, not doing anything is a morally wrong act, and you are obliged to warn him of the danger. 

 

And in less extreme cases, such as when public officials decide how to trade off lockdown restrictions versus spending money on vaccines or public assistance, the same four principles can guide even politicians (!) to make decisions that do not require them to be all-knowing, but do ask them to apply generally accepted moral principles in a practical and judicial way.

 

Of course, judiciousness and prudence are not evenly distributed virtues, and some people will be better at moral decision-making than others.  But when we look into the fundamental assumptions behind the decision-making process, we see that the difference-making approach has fatal flaws, while the traditional virtue-based approach using prudential judgment can be applied successfully by any individual with a good will and enough intelligence to use it.

 

Sources:  A much better  explanation of these approaches to moral reasoning can be found in Robert C. Koons's original article "Prudence in the Pandemic" which appeared on pp. 39-45 of the October issue of First Things, and is also accessible online at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/10/prudence-in-the-pandemic.

Monday, October 05, 2020

From Vikings to Ransomware Attacks

 

An item in Wired recently pointed out that anybody who facilitates ransomware payments to certain U. S. Treasury-sanctioned actors may also be liable to prosecution because they have violated  Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) regulations, which prohibit such dealings.  This puts ransomware victims in a worse bind than ever:  pay up to free your kidnapped data and get fined by the Treasury, or refuse and do without your data. 

 

Perhaps this is just a backwards way for the Treasury Department to encourage organizations that rely on IT facilities—which is nearly everybody nowadays—to be more vigilant in preventing cyberattacks.  And that's not a bad thing.  But if I worked for the IT services division of a large firm or government agency, I would feel somewhat put upon by the notion that rather than helping me avoid ransomware attackers, the Treasury Department was letting me know that if I get attacked, they'll be standing by to make sure any ransom I pay doesn't go to sanctioned criminals. 

 

The utter permeability of national boundaries to the Internet-mediated WorldWideWeb has led us to ignore some long-standing expectations and categories of thought, and I think we ignore them at our peril.  To see what I mean, let me take you back for a moment to Canterbury, England in the fall of 1011 A. D.  A couple of years earlier, an army of Danish Vikings led by Thorkell the Tall had threatened the city, but the populace raised and paid a 3,000-pound silver ransom, and Thorkell turned instead to points south, leaving Canterbury alone for the time being. 

 

But in 1011, Thorkell attacked Canterbury again, and the Anglo-Saxons decided to fight this time.  After a three-week battle, the Vikings broke through the city's defenses and captured  the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was named Aelfheah, and a number of other high officials.  After burning down Canterbury Cathedral, Thorkell ran off with the Archbishop and demanded another 3,000-pound ransom.

 

But the Archbishop himself let it be known that he didn't want to be ransomed, and didn't want his people to pay up.  After seven months of holding on to Aelfheah hoping for a ransom, some of the Vikings under Thorkell lost patience (the Vikings were not known for that virtue), and began to throw cowbones at Aelfheah, finishing him off with a blow from the blunt end of an axe.  Thorkell, who had tried to stop his men from killing Aelfheah, felt so bad about it that he eventually joined forces with the English king, Aethelred the Unready, and fought bravely in his behalf.

 

What has that got to do with ransomware?  More than you might think. 

 

For one thing, our little history lesson shows that placating kidnappers and other demanders of ransom tends to lead, not to the end of ransom demands, but to their encouragement.  Thorkell may have figured, "Hey, we got 3,000 pounds of silver from Canterbury a couple of years ago, let's go try it again."  So like blackmail payments and similar shady dealings, the payment of ransom for either people or data just encourages the bad actors to keep doing what they're doing, in the long run.

 

Secondly, the people of Canterbury didn't expect Aelfheah to fight off the Vikings all by himself.  They mounted a united defense, and though they failed to stop Thorkell the second time, things could have turned out differently if the balance of power had been more in favor of the Anglo-Saxons.  But they would have had to plan for such an attack and devote resources to preparing their armed forces.

 

Because ransomware attackers don't show up on the streets of U. S. cities armed with tanks and flamethrowers, they escape being placed in the same category as we would place the Vikings in 1011 A. D.:  as invaders bent on pillage and destruction.  But that's what they are.

 

It's true that few if any people have died as a direct result of a ransomware attack.  But the net effect is the same:  an invasion of a sovereign territory by (typically) foreign actors leads to money going into the pockets of the attackers. 

 

In its limited bureaucratic way, the U. S. Treasury is alerting potential victims of ransomware attacks that paying ransom to certain sanctioned organizations can get you in trouble with the government, on top of whatever expenses and problems the attack itself causes.  But it's apparently not the Treasury's job to help you defend yourself against such attacks.

 

At a recent social gathering, I met a youngish man who turns out to be a freelance IT security specialist who goes around trying to attack systems to discover their vulnerabilities, and then informs the client about the weak spots he's found.  I didn't spend enough time talking with him to discover if one of his tricks involves threatening ransomware attacks—it would be hard to try that without actually fouling up a client's systems, which is going a little beyond the remit of a consultant.  But such people are an important part of an overall cybersecurity policy that every organization of any size needs to have.  

 

I wish there was some way the U. S. military could guard our Internet borders the way they guard our physical borders.  But the way the Internet has grown makes that nearly impossible, and probably inadvisable as well.  For whatever reason, IT-intensive organizations have to do the equivalent of paying for their own guards and military defenses against the attacks of cyber-Vikings, rather than relying on the government for security as we do for our physical borders. 

 

But minds and organizations change slowly, which is why there are so many outdated operating systems out there, just begging to be hacked or attacked by ransomware.  Maybe some kind of tax credit for IT security expenditures would make a difference in encouraging organizations (at least private ones) to do a better job of safeguarding their systems so well that most ransomware attacks would fail.  Like anybody else, the attackers go around looking for low-hanging fruit, and I suspect that many ransomware attacks would have been foiled by more vigilant IT security on the part of the victims.

 

The long-term solution, if there is one, is increased vigilance and more resources devoted to IT security, plus a disinclination to pay ransomware attackers.  But as long as there are people out there who would rather raid and invade for pay rather than earn a living in a more peaceful way, we will probably have to deal with ransomware attacks.

 

Sources:  Wired's website carried an item about the U. S. Treasury's warning concerning payments to certain ransomware attackers at https://www.wired.com/story/ransomware-fine-grindr-bug-joker-malware-security-news/.  The Treasury's announcement itself can be viewed at https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/ofac_ransomware_advisory_10012020_1.pdf.  And I got the story about Thorkell the Tall and Aelfheah from the Wikipedia article "Siege of Canterbury." 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Julius Randall's Life Mattered

 

Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police last May, countless companies and organizations have announced their condemnation of racism and their commitment to its abolishment.  Time will tell how effective these commitments are.  Rather than pen a bland general statement, I would rather tell a story.  It's a true story.

 

There was once a young engineering student named Julius Randall at a small college in South Carolina.  The college was so small that it had no bookstore, and so the engineering students had to go to the nearby Woolworth's to buy their supplies.  Julius was black, and although the Woolworth's would sell him graph paper and pencils, it wouldn't let him sit at the lunch counter.

 

This was the 1960s, and one day Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in the area and found out about the Woolworth's policy of no Blacks at the lunch counter.  Rev. King caused a picket line to be organized, and for the next few weeks no student of any color bought any supplies at that Woolworth's.  The worst violence that resulted was that somebody threw an egg at the store.  Soon the owners capitulated, and now Julius and his friends could sit at the lunch counter in Woolworth's after buying their supplies.

 

Julius went on to graduate and got an engineering job in the New Jersey area.  He then moved into higher education, and at Stevens Institute of Technology, for seven or eight years he ran the co-op program that allowed students to work and get an education at the same time.  Then he was hired by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in their new Minority Engineering Program (MEP), which is where I met him. 

 

Around that time, Julius contracted a kidney disease that prevented him from driving, and so one day he asked us where we went to church, and could he have a ride there?  It was the beginning of a personal as well as a professional relationship that gave me a close-up view of one of the most saintly persons, of any color, that I have ever known.

 

Julius knew that an engineering education could be the path from poverty to success as it had been for him, which was why he left industry to devote his life to bringing the blessings of engineering education to minority students.  But his work was not without obstacles.  One obstacle at the time was our dean of engineering, who barely tolerated the MEP and repeatedly refused Julius opportunities for promotion when they arose.  Another obstacle was his chronic illness, which would attack him with nausea and vomiting, whereupon he would simply excuse himself from a meeting and deal with it without complaining.  He eventually had to begin a type of home-based dialysis that involved hooking himself up to a complicated machine every night. 

 

But he didn't let that slow him down from his professional work, or from volunteering to organize and run worthy events at church.  During a service he would get up and smile a thousand-watt smile and say, "Good morning, saints!" and then encourage us to join the painting crew or the tee-shirt sale or whatever worthy cause was on the menu that day. 

 

He had been married before, but was divorced before we met him.  Around 1997, he fell in love with a woman and they decided to get married.  Julius did me the honor of asking me to be one of his groomsmen, and we went down to New Jersey in July of 1998 and saw him and Lynn tie the knot.  They honeymooned in Hawaii, and after another year or so at UMass, he found a job closer to his new bride's family in New Jersey, and we saw him off from UMass at a going-away party.

 

In 1999, I left UMass myself for Texas, but we kept in touch with people who knew Julius, and soon we heard a sad story.  It seemed that his wife took on the notion that Julius no longer needed his dialysis machine, so somehow she persuaded him to quit using it to see what would happen.  Ever the loving husband, he tried it, and the result was that he landed in a hospital in a coma. 

 

I learned this shortly before I was due to make a trip from Texas to the New York City area on business, so I found out where the hospital was and made a special side trip to see him.  He was in an ICU surrounded by beeping machinery, and while he seemed unresponsive, I knew that sometimes the last sense to go is hearing.  So I told him I was here, and that my wife and I were praying for him.  I'm not sure, but I think I saw his lips move a little in response.  A few weeks later we heard that he had died.

 

God only knows how many lives Julius Randall touched for the better during his relatively brief time on this planet.  He was always finding people who needed help and figuring out how to help them with jobs, money, a place to stay, a way of doing things, a plan, a word of encouragement, or just a listening ear. 

 

But he did all this in a way that let you know he was human, and "holier than thou" never applied to him.  Once in a blue moon, I even heard him complain.  One day I was driving him back to his apartment and we had to drive through the UMass campus.  He was in the front seat beside me, and I was obeying the speed limit.  Suddenly I saw the lights of a campus police car behind me, so I pulled over.  I forget what reason the officer gave for wanting to pull me over, but it didn't make a lot of sense at the time.  The officer finally let us go, and as I was driving away Julius said, "Man, I get tired of that sometimes."  It wasn't the first time he'd been pulled over for DWB:  Driving While Black.  But it was the first time I experienced just a tiny sliver of what it was like to live in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts as a Black man, whose life certainly mattered.

Monday, September 21, 2020

We Don't Chat — For Now

 

Today (Sunday, Sept. 20) the U. S. Department of Commerce implemented an unprecedented ban on a major Chinese social media company, WeChat.  Citing security concerns, President Trump issued an executive order on Aug. 6 to cripple WeChat and TikTok, but the TikTok order has been delayed until November.

 

Not so WeChat.  While it will not be illegal for individuals to continue using WeChat in the U. S., it may become difficult or impossible in the days to come. 

 

The Dept. of Commerce order bans the distribution of the WeChat app to new phones and prohibits the transfer of funds through the app.  It also prohibits internet service providers from servicing the app, and so unless your ISP is based outside the U. S., the app may disappear altogether.  Some of the terms of the ban are rather technical, but I think a word from the underworld covers the intent of the order:  they want to kneecap WeChat. 

 

Anyone who knows a person who speaks Chinese has probably heard them at least mention WeChat.  It's operated by the huge Chinese Google-like conglomerate Tencent, and is sort of like Facebook on steroids.  In addition to allowing Facebook-like interactions, it serves as a money transfer medium, a news app, messaging app, and of course, an advertising medium.  According to a report in the Washington Post, the Chinese government censors it heavily, and independent investigators who tested it with 26,000 test words on accounts registered in China, Canada, and the U. S. found nearly 200 words triggered censorship in accounts with Chinese phone numbers.  Over three million people use WeChat in the U. S., and the majority of them are going to have big problems trying to continue with the app after today.

 

Why is the U. S. government landing on WeChat like a piano from a third-floor window?  The official announcement is terse on this:  "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S. Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality."  Personally, my impression of what WeChat does is to connect Chinese speakers in the U. S. with their friends, relatives, associates, and (possibly) fellow spies back in China.  But because the vast majority of what goes on through WeChat is probably in Chinese, it's hard to see how the rest of the U. S. is directly harmed by the existence of the app.

 

What this looks like to me is more along the lines of a diplomatic tit-for-tat on a large scale.  Every so often the U. S. will catch some spies from another country and expel them.  It's entirely expected that in the days to follow, the foreign country will go to the U. S. embassy there and tell an equal number of U. S. diplomats or diplomatic staff to pack their bags and head back to the U. S. 

 

Ever since Facebook, Twitter, and company gained prominence, these U. S.-based apps have been heavily censored or flat-out banned in China, which is one reason why there was such a big vacuum for WeChat to fill.  In going a long way toward banning WeChat here, the U. S. government is simply saying, "You want to ban our apps?  Okay, we'll ban yours and see how you like that." 

 

Such moves have their place in a carefully planned strategic pressure-building exercise that includes sanctions of other kinds.  But this administration's actions toward China do not exactly give the impression of careful deliberation.  Nevertheless, being startling and unpredictable can itself be an effective strategy, and it's possible that WeChat and even the Chinese Communist Party itself was caught off guard.

 

The broader picture of U. S.-China relations, while not explicitly a matter of engineering ethics, deserves mention at this point.  While allowing economic freedom to a great extent, the Chinese government continues to repress political freedom and systematically persecutes certain groups such as the Falun Gong religious organization and the ethnic group termed Uighurs.  These are deplorable actions that deserve censure, and if the WeChat ban is a sort of punishment for these things, it is well deserved. 

 

On the other hand, one has to ask how effective it will be.  Something else not called WeChat but doing everything WeChat does is probably in development at this instant, and the Department of Commerce order hinted that they might take care of that too, if WeChat shows up under another name.  What this action has started is a social-media-ban war that will be marked by a ban followed by an evasive move, then followed by another ban, and so on.  The WeChat users, most of whom probably do nothing more sinister than checking on Aunt Hong in Wuhan every now and then, are caught in the middle, and will have to struggle along as best they can with old-fashioned phone calls or whatever ingenious programmers and companies can come up with to evade the ban. 

 

And there is always the possibility that, as the clock runs down to Election Day, this anti-China move will turn out to be just a political plum offered to supporters of the President, rather than a calculated diplomatic move in a well-crafted chess game.  I don't know how many Chinese-American citizens voted for President Trump in 2016, but this action probably has not endeared him to them. 

 

Historically, one reason the WorldWideWeb has appealed philosophically to certain tendencies of mind is that it does not recognize borders.  For people whose ideal world would be a borderless global block party under a single benevolent government, that has been one of the strengths of the Internet-mediated thing that lets people chat with others halfway around the world as though they were in the same room.  But the Department of Commerce move is an attempt to impose borders on what began as a borderless cyberworld.  Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a political stunt that will soon be forgotten is something we can't tell yet.  All we can be sure of is that U. S. users of WeChat are going to have a hard time continuing to use it, and we'll just have to wait to see what the wider effects are, if any.

 

Sources:  The official U. S. Department of Commerce statement regarding its orders on WeChat and TikTok can be found at https://www.commerce.gov/news/press-releases/2020/09/commerce-department-prohibits-wechat-and-tiktok-transactions-protect.  I also referred to a Washington Post article at https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/18/wechat-ban-faq/.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Hyundai Engine Fire Recalls: Lessons to Learn

 

With the COVID-19 situation, a lot of other things have dropped under the radar.  But in one way or another, life is still going on, people are buying and driving cars, and not all of those cars are behaving the way they should.  In particular, the South Korean automaker Hyundai has had a serious issue with their cars catching fire.

 

According to one Associated Press report, since 2015 Hyundai and its associated brand Kia have recalled over two million vehicles because of issues with engine failures and fires.  In April of 2019, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it had received over 3,000 complaints of engine fires and 103 injuries as a result.  That investigation revealed poorly machined crankcase bearings that caused metal shavings to clog oil passages, overheating the bearings and causing the engines to seize. 

 

The more recent recalls relate to an anti-lock brake computer board that can corrode and short out, causing a fire even if the car is turned off.  In a recall released last week, Hyundai warned owners of about 180,000 of its Tucson SUVs to park them outside, and if the anti-lock brake warning light comes on, to disconnect the battery and call Hyundai for a loaner car. 

 

There's good news and bad news here.

 

The good news is that Hyundai is not stonewalling or denying that there are any problems, as other auto companies have done from time to time when consumer complaints forced them to deal with a safety issue, such as rapid unintended acceleration in Toyotas.  While I would not be happy to be on the receiving end of one of Hyundai's recalls, at least I would know that the company is concerned and wants to do the right thing if a problem shows up.

 

On the other hand, one wonders about the quality control and engineering that is letting these things happen in the first place.  The overheated-bearing problem sounds like a manufacturing issue.  Automakers have been machining crankcase bearings since there were automobiles at all, and so the problem is most likely a defect in the way the manufacturing process was set up or executed.  Automobiles are probably the most complex type of consumer product to make, and so it's easy for a subtle issue such as metal chips that don't cause problems right away to escape notice. 

 

The anti-lock computer board problem is harder to understand.  One of the basic rules of electric power system design is to include protective circuitry—read "fuses"—in all power wiring, so that if any part of the system draws enough current to start a fire, a fuse somewhere will blow and interrupt the process before a fire gets a chance to start.

 

Of course, you can carry this only so far.  You have to have wires going from the battery to the fuses, and how do you protect those wires?  More fuses?  Typically, heavy-current pathways such as the one going from the battery to the starter are not fused.  But the starter operates only 0.0003% of the time the car is in use, roughly, so no fuse is needed in that circuit.  And maybe whoever designed the anti-lock brake system figured that hey, this system is rarely going to operate either, so it doesn't really need a fuse. 

 

Trouble is, corrosion doesn't punch a time clock, and it's rather surprising that cars only a year or two old have experienced enough corrosion on a supposedly well-protected board to short out and cause fires.  Besides the electrical issue, Hyundai needs to take into account that millions of cars in this country get exposed to salt spray from icy roads for months at a time.  Unless every seal is perfect, your electronics in any area that the salt can get to will be toast, perhaps literally if it catches fire.

 

Corrosion of a computer board was the reason I had to let go of my 2006 Honda Civic last summer.  An intermittent missing problem made me take it to the shop, where the tech called me aside and took me outside for some privacy.  I felt a little bit like a patient waiting to hear from his doctor about a cancer diagnosis.  He told me that the wires coming out of the main computer box were corroded green.  "We call it the green death.  There's nothing you can do but replace the whole thing, and that would cost more than the car's worth." I consoled myself with the fact that the vehicle ran fine for fourteen years, although in Texas we don't put salt on the roads, just sand on the few days a year there might be ice on the streets.

 

If corrosion is causing shorts in circuit boards of Hyundais that are only a year or two old, this does not bode well for the long-term viability of the vehicles.  Good automaking has advanced to the point where car owners expect to drive their vehicles for 200,000 or even 300,000 miles before they encounter a fatal problem like my Honda's green death, or other issue that sends the car to the scrapyard.  The auto industry as a whole is to be congratulated for resisting the temptation toward planned obsolescence that other industries such as consumer electronics have bought into wholesale. 

 

But it's not easy to make a machine as complicated as a car run without problems for hundreds of thousands of miles, and Hyundai, a relative newcomer to the automotive industry, may still have some lessons to learn.  Thankfully, few people have been injured or killed by the problems that have led to recent recalls, and let's hope that the firm can address such issues proactively in the future before they cause further problems to consumers.

 

Sources:  I referred to articles on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's website at https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/hyundai-vehicle-recall-1.5720554, the Car and Driver website at https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a27053460/nhtsa-investigation-hyundai-kia-fires/, and Fortune's website at https://fortune.com/2020/02/07/hyundai-recall-2020-engine-fires/, besides the Wikipedia article "Hyundai Motor Company."

Monday, September 07, 2020

Not Recommended: Flying a Jetpack near LAX

 

But that's just what somebody did last Sunday afternoon, in the sky over Cudahy, California, a one-square-mile town about eighteen miles (29 km) east of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  Two pilots spotted the person at an altitude of about 3000 feet (914 meters).  Flight controllers were inclined to doubt the credibility of the American Airlines pilot who saw the flyer first, but then it was confirmed by a Southwest pilot a few minutes later.  One plane came within an estimated 300 yards (90 meters) of the still-unidentified jetpack pilot, who the FBI is still looking for.  I don't know how many FAA regulations one violates by flying a jetpack into the LAX runway approach, but all it takes is one to get you in serious hot water.

 

This incident could have turned out much worse, as a man and a jetpack getting sucked into an intake cowling or hitting a wing could seriously cripple a jetliner, not to mention putting a premature end to the jetpack pilot's career.  And this is why justice, in the form of the FBI, is seeking him out. 

 

About a week before the LAX incident, a couple of residents in the LA area spotted something that looked like a flying person in the sky and even got some brief cellphone videos, although the jetpack-flyer was too far away to see details.  So assuming it was a man (and I don't think most women will be offended if I assume testosterone was at least partly responsible for this situation), it looks like the guy took some test flights before doing the really foolish thing of hanging out in controlled airspace long enough for a couple of airline pilots to get a good look at him.

 

Let's speculate a little and imagine profiling this person.  While control systems have improved since the very early days of jetpacks in the 1960s, to the point that you can find one or two companies that sell jetpacks commercially nowadays, it's still not something that the average citizen can just strap on his back and fly.  So our suspect has to have had some kind of flight training, though it might not have been anything too out of the ordinary—he might be a general-aviation pilot, for example, or a helicopter pilot.  Or he could just be somebody who's really good at a flight-simulator video game.

 

Next, there's the resources you need to get a jetpack and fuel it up. The information I could find on jetpacks indicates that the fuel used was probably high-purity hydrogen peroxide, around 85% to 90% pure.

 

German scientists came to the same conclusion about fuel when they designed the first rocket-propelled interceptor plane during World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.  It used high-purity hydrogen peroxide too, which has got to be one of the nastiest substances to handle that there is.  It wants to let go of its oxygen really bad, to the point that if it comes in contact with any organic substance—dirt, cloth, hair, skin—it catches fire.  Reportedly, more people died during the testing and training phase of the Me-109 deployment than were killed in combat, and I'm sure the hydrogen peroxide was a big factor in that.

 

So our California jetpack enthusiast, tiring of his enforced idleness during COVID-19 days, orders a $200,000 jetpack and either manages to lie his way into a delivery of high-purity hydrogen peroxide, or gets the fuel some other way.  Now there are lots of aerospace companies in the LA area, so it wouldn't be surprising if the fuel or the jetpack or both were obtained via good-old-boy connections.  But the pilot would have to be a good old boy himself, and so engaged in some sort of high-tech network that investigators shouldn't have too much trouble identifying, assuming his friends are willing to talk.

 

Barring that, I'm sure UPS or whoever delivered these things kept records, because offhand I wouldn't have the first idea how to ship such dangerous stuff without all sorts of special permits and so on, which would make it easy to trace.

 

The most mysterious part of this incident remains the motivation.  If it was just personal curiosity, going somewhere way out in the desert by oneself would seem to be the best place to practice jetpack flying, not directly over one of the most densely-populated municipalities in the United States.  Leaving all questions of personal safety aside, having a misguided jetpack fly in through your kitchen window would not be an easy thing to handle in case something went wrong, and so the choice of location seems singularly poor.

 

It doesn't seem like Cudahy itself, which is mostly lower-income apartments, is exactly a likely hotbed of cutting-edge aerospace technology expertise, although in California, you never know.  One thing we can be sure of is that the pilot didn't travel very far from where he took off, because the flight times of even the longest-flight jetpacks are measured in minutes.  Here it will be helpful to figure out where else he was sighted in his practice flights, which by necessity would be close to home.  On your first flight in your brand-new jetpack, I don't think you're going to fly out of your back yard and intentionally land at the door of the neighborhood QuikSak to pick up some beer. 

 

But if the pilot could choose where to fly, why the LAX landing pattern, unless he was wanting to make some kind of statement?  Anybody smart enough to fly a jetpack would be smart enough to know what restricted airspace is, and so it was a deliberate attempt to cause consternation, at the least. 

 

Well, sometimes people do stupid things just for the heck of it, and that may be the case here.  With all the clues we've enumerated, it does seem like it will just be a matter of time before the FBI identifies the pilot and comes calling, if he can be found.  On the other hand, he may have wised up once the publicity appeared about his little stunt, and taken a long vacation in the Bahamas.  Anybody who can afford a $200,000 jetpack can probably afford a vacation in the Bahamas too. 

 

Sources:  NBC News reported the location of the incident as determined by the FBI at https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/fbi-narrows-down-sighting-location-of-man-flying-in-jet-pack-near-lax/2423858/.  I referred to a Manchester Guardian report on the history of jetpacks at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/15/jetpacks-jet-propulsion-flying-to-work, and the Wikipedia article "Messerschmitt Bf 109."