Monday, September 27, 2010

Is Birth Control a Sustainable Technology?

Last year, the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (IEEE stands for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) devoted its annual conference to issues of sustainable development. One of the papers was presented by Jeff Robbins, who applied the second law of thermodynamics to the question of technology development. His point was that entropy always increases, and whenever you have a decrease in entropy caused by the production of ordered systems (as in technological development), there has to be a bigger increase in entropy elsewhere.

Robbins assumes that in order to survive, humanity must change its ways with regard to consumption of energy and technological activity. He says “. . . we are living unsustainably, our extravagant consuming feeding off coming generations.” He goes on to cite seven barriers that, as he puts it, stand in the way of “moving in the direction of where we know we have to go.” Leaving aside the question of whether a purely quantitative theory about mass and energy really applies to an issue fraught with social and ethical aspects, I would like to address what Robbins says about one of the “barriers” to sustainable development that he sees as a critical problem to be overcome.

Robbins titles this section of his paper, “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” He begins by saying, “When it comes to having children, few people think globally.” He shows how in religious groups such as the Amish or ultraorthodox Jews, where large families are both socially approved and encouraged, population growth is much higher than the average in their host nations. He then plays the Malthusian game of projecting what would happen if every couple had eight children instead of 2.07 or whatever the approved number is for zero population growth, and shows that one couple could produce 67 million offspring that way in only three centuries. And if that couple and their descendants happened to live in North America instead of the lower per-capita energy-use regions of sub-Saharan Africa, their energy consumption would eventually outstrip the planet’s ability to supply it.

In a way, I hate to pick on Robbins, because his fearmongering statistics belie a much larger global trend that he chooses to ignore. To his credit, some of his other barriers have stronger arguments to back them up, but I will reluctantly stick to his point about population growth.

The big news on the population front for the last couple of decades has not been overpopulation, but the coming population bust, which is already far advanced in countries such as Japan. With a birth rate of only 1.2 per woman, Japan is already experiencing the early consequences of a demographic collapse that may turn the country into either a “ghost nation” or a place that will be taken over by immigrants out of necessity. Either way, the dearth of babies has brought an unsustainable decline to the population which threatens Japan’s very existence as a nation.

The U. S. may be experiencing similar problems, though in a less acute way since this country has an exceptionally high birthrate compared to other developed nations. But it doesn’t take a Ph. D. in economics to figure out that if families are smaller, their need for housing declines, and eventually there are fewer families to buy houses in the next generation. There are many causes of the international housing-market collapse, but declining birth rates are certainly a contributing factor. And I’m saying nothing about the problems with social programs such as Social Security that depend on transferring wealth from the (presumably growing) younger population to retirees.

In fairness to Robbins, he may be aware of these trends, but in order to have something to say he picks on isolated groups where large families are the norm. If sustainable development means development that takes future generations into consideration, what about the very existence of those future generations? Before you can receive the benefits from the wise and sustainable decisions of previous generations, you have to exist. If the countries of the world contracept themselves out of existence and leave a clean, cool, pristine planet to the crickets, that may be very well for the crickets, but we have committed the most fundamental wrong possible against the future generations: we have denied them the privilege of existence. In all the discussions of sustainable development I have seen, the idea that birth control is anything but a beneficent technology with respect to sustainability never comes up. This is probably due to the deeply misanthropic philosophy espoused by the more extreme members of the sustainability contingent. They view people—other people, of course—as the problem, and therefore the idea of making fewer people in the future has to be part of the solution.

Robbins’ scary scenario of vast global overcrowding is almost certainly not going to happen. The United Nations itself (not exactly a hotbed of anti-sustainable-development activism) in its low range of population forecasts (which have historically turned out to be the most accurate) says that if the tendency of wealthier, more educated people to have fewer children continues, global population will peak at around 8 billion in 2040 and then begin a slow overall decline. So much for Malthus. In contrast to global warming, the end of oil, and other dire straits that Robbins cites as something to be feared in the future, the consequences of population collapse are already here and taking their toll on some countries.

As Steven Mosher points out in his Population Research Institute website, you can’t turn population collapse around easily. Once the number of childbearing-age women declines significantly, the demographics reaches almost a point of no return and even if the few women left have much larger families than previously, it’s basically too late to fix things. Of course, neither the Malthusian exponential growth nor the population-collapse exponential decline ever happen exactly in accordance with the math—societies are simply too complicated, and immigration, political changes, and other factors always intervene. But to the extent that the demographics proceed without major interruptions, it is a near certainty that population collapse will occur in a given group with something like the predicted intensity. Much of Western Europe is in the same sinking boat, by the way.

So the next time anybody lists a bunch of technologies that threaten future generations, I want to see birth control in the list. If it’s not included, then we are missing one of the most obvious ignored facts about sustainable development.

Sources: Jeff Robbins’ article “Standing In the Way: Sustainable Future vs. Sloth, Genes, and Entropy” appears in the Fall 2010 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, pp. 14-21. The website of the Population Research Institute is and has a link to its “Overpopulation Is a Myth” project at, where the statistics about Japan and the U. N.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mixing Academia and Military Secrets: The Case of J. Reece Roth

The plasma physicist J. Reece Roth wrote a book on industrial plasma engineering that I have found very useful in my recent research. So when I was asked to recommend a reviewer for a paper on plasma physics, I went on the Internet to find Roth’s email address. To my amazement, the first thing that came up was a story about how Roth had been indicted, tried, and convicted for violating export-law restrictions on technical data he had developed as part of an Air Force research contract. In July of 2009, Roth was sentenced to four years in prison for giving restricted information to Chinese and Iranian nationals and taking a laptop to China with restricted information on it. At this time, the 73-year-old Roth may not actually be in jail yet pending an appeal, but this sad end to a notable career is a cautionary tale for anyone who conducts research in an academic setting with certain types of military funding.

After graduating from MIT in 1959, Roth obtained a Ph. D. from Cornell and joined NASA, where he worked in plasma-fusion technology until 1978. He then joined the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and developed an atmospheric-pressure plasma technology which he published and patented. Around 2000, he co-founded a company called Atmospheric Glow Technologies (AGT) to develop inventions based on his discovery, and for a few years the firm did quite well, licensing several products which were made by other firms.

Along the way, Dr. Roth had made several trips to China in order to present his research work, and was named an honorary professor at two universities there. Like many other researchers in technical fields, he hired Chinese graduate students from time to time and communicated with them regarding the technical details of the research they were doing. So far, none of these activities would be of legal concern. But all that changed when AGT won a Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract with the U. S. Air Force to do research on plasma actuators for drone aircraft.

There is nothing wrong about professors inventing useful things, or patenting their inventions through their institution’s intellectual property office, or founding companies to exploit the patents. This type of activity is becoming almost routine in academic science and technology, and is vigorously encouraged by many universities. Most people (not all) even think there is nothing wrong with professors who do military research. But if they do, they have to follow the rules.

Certain types of military research contracts have export-restriction clauses in them, meaning that any technical data developed as a result of the contract is subject to export-law restrictions. This is only reasonable behavior on the part of the military, which hopes to gain a technical advantage over their international competition. If the usual free and open access to information that is customary in universities were allowed for focused and applied military research results, the Air Force would be spending its money for the benefit of all military forces in the world, which is not the point. So the SBIR contract that Roth’s company obtained with the Air Force explicitly restricted technical results in this way and made them subject to the Arms Control Export Act (ACEA), which requires obtaining a license before disclosing the information to foreign nationals or exporting it to foreign countries.

Unfortunately for Roth, he thought he knew better than the University of Tennessee’s export coordinator Robin Witherspoon. Instead of founding his company at a physically separate location from his university lab and staffing it with company-hired staff, which would have made it easier to obey the export-restriction laws, he continued to use his university lab and his graduate students for both university and AGT research activities, paying for the AGT work through a subcontract with the university. This is a touchy way of doing things ethically under the best of conditions, and when you add export restrictions to the mix, you get a potentially explosive situation.

In May of 2006, when export coordinator Witherspoon discovered that in blatant contradiction to the terms of the SBIR contract, Roth had hired non-U. S. nationals to work on the project, she told him he had to remove them at once and find U. S. students instead. She also told him not to take any restricted information on a trip he was about to make to China.

Roth apparently believed that until he demonstrated a working prototype, his work was still “fundamental research” and not subject to export restriction laws. Acting on this erroneous supposition, he continued to communicate research results to his Chinese and Iranian graduate students and took to China a laptop containing proposals and research reports on the SBIR project. The University of Tennessee, fearing it would be charged with violations if something wasn’t done fast, informed the FBI and the State Department of Roth’s actions. When he returned from China, he found federal officials waiting for him. They confiscated his laptop and began an investigation that culminated in a federal indictment, a trial, and conviction on thirteen counts of violating the Arms Control Export Act.

Along with his many academic honors, Roth now has the dubious distinction of being the first professor convicted under the ACEA laws. His sad story should be a warning to anyone who wants to pursue the combination of activities that Roth did. Setting up a separate lab with U. S.-only workers would have made more work for Roth and perhaps less profit. But it would have kept him out of trouble with the law.

Sources: There is an abundance of news material on Roth’s trial and the associated events. Among the reports I drew on were articles at the following websites:,2933,415982,00.html?sPage=fnc/us/crime

Monday, September 13, 2010

BP’s Report: No Smoking Gun, But a Lot of Smoke

The long oily summer of the BP oil spill is over, and now the investigation season has begun. BP itself has completed and issued a summary of its own internal investigation, posted for public access on its website. I have had time to read only the executive summary, but even that brief six-page document has technical details I don’t completely understand. However, the basic picture is clear: what happened last April 20 to cause the explosion, fire, deaths, and consequent oil spill that blackened miles of coastline and disrupted entire industries was not a simple one-failure event. Instead, it was a cascade of failures, both mechanical and human, that all went the wrong way to produce the tragedy.

At the time of the accident, the well drilling itself had been completed, and BP together with the actual operator of the rig, Transocean, were under pressure to cap off the well temporarily until a production structure could be put in place. Every modern oil well consists of a hole drilled in the rock, into which a long pipe called the casing is inserted. To keep the highly pressurized oil and gas where it belongs, most of the space (the “annulus” or ring-shaped area) between the outside of the casing and the raw hole is filled with a special cement, so the only place the “hydrocarbons” (BP’s term for oil and gas) can go is into the casing at a controlled location near the bottom of the well. At the very bottom of the casing between it and the bottom of the hole itself is something called a “shoe track.” I’m not sure what it is, but it looks in their drawing like a long can with holes at the bottom. The intention was to seal off this shoe track with the same cement that was being used to fill the space between the casing and the drill-hole wall.

Well, something went wrong: too much nitrogen in the cement, or something. But when the rig operators went to check the integrity of the cement seal by removing the heavy drill mud and replacing it with seawater to check for leaks, the pressure in the well rose beyond allowable limits.

The first place the accident could have been prevented had arrived. If the operators had put back the drill mud and figured out what was wrong instead of proceeding as if things were normal, they would have at least had a chance to avoid problems. But being in a hurry, they accepted the data as showing the cement seal was okay, even though it wasn’t, and eventually left lighter seawater in the well. This allowed high-pressure natural gas to enter the well.

Once the operators realized they had a problem, they sent signals down the well to operate the infamous blowout preventer (BOP), and connected the top of the well to a mud-gas separator on the rig itself. (As most readers probably know by now, the blowout preventer is a big piece of machinery on the ocean floor with two or three redundant systems designed to shut off the well in just such an eventuality as having high-pressure gas flow through it out of control.) Neither of these actions had the intended effect. For a couple of reasons (a bad solenoid valve and a low battery) the BOP failed to operate, and the gas flow coming from the well soon overwhelmed the mud-gas separator’s ability to deal with it. There was a separate overboard diverter line they could have used which might have kept the gas away from places it could ignite a little longer, but it wasn’t used.

Eyewitnesses who were in nearby vessels noted a high-pitched noise of escaping gas just before the explosion. By the time the gas got to areas that were not “electrically classified” (meaning certified as free of ignition sources), it was just a matter of time before an engine sucked in enough natural gas to set it afire. And the tragedy had begun.

The executive summary was written in dry, technical language in which people appear only in the passive voice (e. g. “The first well actions were to close. . .”). But as the immediate party responsible for day-to-day rig operations, Transocean is at fault for a number of things: poor training and management, careless maintenance of critical equipment such as blowout preventers, and allowing schedule pressures to take precedence over safety. But in the eyes of most laws, it is the owner of a rig, not just the operator, whose ultimate responsibility it is to see that the thing doesn’t befoul a good bit of the Gulf of Mexico, as the Deepwater Horizon failure did.

To their credit, BP did establish a fund to pay legitimate claims of damage resulting from the spill, and has paid out a lot of money already. But obviously, it would have been better to operate the rig like the 99+% of other deep-water rigs that successfully drill for and produce oil without major spills or fatal accidents. Besides fouling miles of shoreline, the carelessness exemplified by this tragedy of errors has blackened the reputation of the entire offshore drilling industry, and provoked a harsh government response in the form of the controversial moratorium on drilling operations. Some of the most vocal opponents of this ban were people along the coast that stand to be most affected by any accidents. But the reason for that is simple: offshore oil drilling is a big part of the gulf states’ economy. History may show that this decision was yet another bad judgment call in a cascade of bad judgment calls that began on April 20 on the rig.

At any rate, we will be finding out even more as the Presidential commission and other investigative bodies complete their findings. But already, the technical outlines of the accident are pretty clear. And pretty depressing.

Sources: I referred only to BP’s executive summary of their internal report, available at

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Waterfront—and Engineering—Ain’t What It Used To Be

A few days ago, I watched “On the Waterfront,” the famous 1954 movie starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Eva Marie Saint. Brando plays a morally conflicted longshoreman named Terry who eventually takes a stand against the corrupt union that has murdered fellow longshoreman Joey, the brother of Edie (played by Saint). Karl Malden is the Catholic priest who gets involved in Edie’s freelance investigation of Joey’s death, and ultimately persuades Terry to confess his involvement in Joey’s death and testify against the union bosses, who thereupon beat him within an inch of his life.

This Oscar-winning movie’s context is the New York City dockyards of the 1950s, and was shot mostly on location. And here’s where engineering comes in.

As I watched the movie, I began to notice the backgrounds in outdoor scenes: gritty alleyways, buildings that were already half a century old in 1950, ships constantly plying the waters of the harbor, and factories, factories, factories. Not little one-story light-industry jobs, either: big towering brick-and-steel piles with steam coming out of pipes and tanks, places that were bustling hives of physical work for hundreds or thousands of people, as the dockyards themselves were. And the longshoremen union’s members were mostly first- or second-generation Irish immigrants, men who had spent all their lives busting their backs as they hauled heavy barrels, bags, and boxes around in the days before containerized shipping rendered most of their jobs obsolete.

The fact that the American economy depended vitally on the large quantities of stuff that flowed in and out of our ports made it possible for longshoremens’ unions to gain an illegal stranglehold on the commerce flowing through the docks, profiting from all kinds of corrupt practices ranging from preferential treatment of workers and shippers in exchange for kickbacks to organized-crime-style theft of shipped goods. The best thing many of the longshoremen could do with their lives, beyond simple survival, was to scrimp and save in order to send their children to college, where the next generation might learn enough to get professional jobs in air-conditioned offices doing something like accounting or engineering.

Today, most of the longshoremens’ jobs are gone. The New York City factories are gone. We still move a lot of stuff through ports, but containerized shipping is to the docks in “On the Waterfront” as an elevator is to a horse and buggy. Most of the jobs that Americans are willing to take these days are inside office-type positions. Such a job may not be engineering, but it probably involves computers, and its connection with physical stuff is likely to be remote, if it exists at all. And engineering increasingly keeps its practitioners in front of a computer too, rather than on the shop floor, or factory, or even a test bench.

To the extent that most of our citizens no longer have to work in dangerous, physically demanding jobs that wear your body out and dull your mind, the changes that have taken place from 1954 to 2010 are good ones. I wrote a few weeks back (July 19) about the arrogance that can creep into our attitudes toward people who still work with their hands as much as with their minds (I’m not counting typing as working with your hands). All workers who are not positively engaged in evil activities are worthy of honor, right down to the strawberry harvesters and janitors, many of whom dream of better jobs for their children just as the dockworkers in “On the Waterfront” did. Almost a quarter of the students at Texas State University where I teach are of Hispanic origin, and many are the first in their families to attend college. This is by and large a good thing.

But something else has also changed in the last half-century or so that I have trouble putting into words. A large and growing fraction of the U. S. economy consists of activity that either simply moves wealth around for a fee, or delivers purely symbolic content—software, generously defined. By this I mean things like movies, video games, and basically anything you pay for that comes in the form of bits rather than stuff. Engineers are heavily involved in the production and design ends of these parts of the economy. The products, and therefore the jobs, tend to be evanescent, the original meaning of which is “to vanish like vapor.” That doesn’t mean you can’t get another job doing something similar, after a while, perhaps. But the nature of this area of the economy encourages extreme competition, constant demands for novelty (often without a true improvement in quality), and a consequent shortsighted outlook on life.

Don’t get me wrong. I would rather live in today’s economy and state of technological advancement than in 1954 (although technically, I lived in both—I was born the year before the movie came out). And it’s hard to organize a corrupt union around the shipment of bits on the Internet, although crooks have found many ways to operate in that environment too. But perhaps what I’m looking for nowadays, and don’t see much of, is a simplicity and stability that life had back then—even if it was often simply and indefinitely bad.

Engineers starting their careers today have to accept the idea that their first job will probably not last longer than a couple or three years, and their company itself might not even make it that long without a buyout or significant shakeup. And your next job may require you to learn an entirely new discipline, on your own dime, before you can even think about applying for it. And moving, which involves uprooting whatever face-to-face relationships the modern workplace allows, is a fact of life now, making traditional community life, which requires staying in one place for at least the amount of time it takes to establish meaningful friendships, a distant esoteric memory for more and more people.

On this Labor Day, let us be glad that labor, and many unions, ain’t what they used to be, at least as portrayed in “On the Waterfront.” But let’s also honor all honest labor, and see if we can think of ways it can be more lastingly meaningful and part of a life of integrity and honor.