Sunday, May 29, 2011

Robocalls and Electronic Warfare on the Landline

Well, it’s finally happened. I have reluctantly joined the ranks of those whom you are never, ever going to be able to talk to on their landlines simply by calling their number and waiting for a live person to answer the phone. Now we always let the answering machine pick up the call. If the caller leaves a message (which usually doesn’t happen), and it’s somebody we want to talk with, we’ll call them back. But otherwise, the caller is out of luck.

Thirty, or even twenty, years ago, I would have regarded this sort of behavior as standoffish at best, if not downright unfriendly. I inherited a strong streak of what you might call German democratic “just-folks” populism from my father. It’s one reason I still mow my own lawn, have a listed phone number, and until recently, answered my own home phone in person. I don’t want to send a message that I’m too busy or important to be bothered by people I don’t know. But that was before some of the people I don’t know started using robocall machines (technical term: auto-dialers) to pester the life out of me by asking for donations to various and sundry charities. What prompted me to change my behavior was the realization that about 90% of the calls reaching our landline were from robot dialers operated by charities of one kind or another. While some of these organizations are worthwhile, I got tired of spending numerous five-minute chunks either trying to get them to hang up, or reluctantly promising to watch in the mail for the envelope with the red phone on it in order to send in my twenty bucks for the relief of red-haired orphans of left-handed libertarians, or whatever it was.

I’m not alone in letting my answering machine screen phone calls. Response rates to telephone polls are declining steadily. According to one study, 36% of calls resulted in completed interviews in 1997, but the figure dropped to 25% by 2003, and is probably somewhere in the low teens today. Many people, especially younger ones, have dropped their landline altogether, or never even had one, relying only on their cell phones. This has created problems for organizations such as telephone-solicitation charities and polling outfits, because the rules are different for cell phones and landlines. Did you know that there is a Federal law against using auto-dialing machines for cell-phone numbers? No such restriction applies to landlines. For this and other reasons, it costs about twice as much to do polls calling cell phone numbers as it does to call landline numbers. And naturally, that results in fewer pesky solicitations on cell phones. Not zero, just fewer, which is one reason I hardly ever turn on my cellphone.

This mass retreat from instant accessibility is one more example of what you might call the electronic-warfare effect. Electronic warfare includes any techniques designed to confuse, disable, or otherwise bamboozle your enemy’s radar, communications, and other electronic systems. It began during World War II with the advent of radar, and ever since then has followed an ever-escalating path of improved jammers and countermeasures, followed by the other side’s devising a way to dodge the jammers and countermeasures, followed by the first side’s countervailing improvements in said jammers and countermeasures, ad infinitum. The same kind of thing happens all the time with cybersecurity, telephone solicitations, and even humdrum things like locks and burglar alarms.

In some fields, the war reaches a stalemate pretty quickly. Unless you have a Fort-Knox scale hoard of gold in your house, you are not likely to spend extravagant amounts of money on super-secure locks and infrared-laser burglar alarm systems. But with a relatively trivial investment in robo-calling machines, the telephone solicitors have managed to pollute a well that used to be clean, fresh water, metaphorically speaking: namely, the experience of dialing a stranger’s number and getting the stranger on the other end of the line, right away, without the intervention of an answering machine. That experience is increasingly rare today, and I am one who has contributed to its increasing rarity.

It’s hard to say where all this is headed. If the artificial-intelligence folks get their act together, we may all have phones that act like clever private secretaries, forwarding calls directly to us from people we want to talk with and squelching other calls even before they set off the ring tone. And yes, there’s probably an iPhone app for that—there is for almost everything else. If the telephone world of 1970 was the electronic version of the peasant village where everybody could talk with everybody else, today’s telephone world is more like those rich parts of town where everybody lives behind a guarded gate and you have to know someone inside in order to get in. My German democratic-populist self says we have lost something in the transition. But maybe it’s just different, not better or worse.

Sources: The Pew Research Center has a helpful website that answers numerous questions about how telephone polls are conducted, at The paper in which the decline in response rates is described is “Gauging the impact of growing nonresponse on estimates from a national RDD telephone survey,” by Scott Keeter, Courtney Kennedy, Michael Dimock, Jonathan Best, and Peyton Craighill, which appeared in the online edition of Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 70 (2006), pp. 759-779, and at

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Global Warming’s Judgment Day

As some readers may have heard, today, May 21, 2011, was supposed to be Judgment Day, at least according to Harold Camping, a religious broadcaster who has predicted dates for the end of the world at least twice now. To give him the benefit of the doubt, May 21 won’t be over technically until it’s midnight at the International Date Line, but that’s only about another nine hours from when I’m writing this Saturday evening, Central Daylight Time. In fairness to Mr. Camping, I agree with him that it was at least logically possible that today would be Judgment Day, believing as I do in the second coming of Christ. But logical possibility is also about as much as I can say about the much larger numbers of global-warming Judgment Day forecasters, many of whom sit in the seats of scientific authority and government power.

In contrast to Mr. Camping’s prediction, which was largely held up to ridicule, the prediction that our continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead to a wide variety of present and future climate disasters ranging from droughts to floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes has been taken very seriously for many years in the highest centers of government and science. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency is now considering the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant, and could cripple huge swathes of the economy with a single ruling. Against the array of global-warming prophets ranging from Al Gore to President Obama, only a few voices are raised. Those who do object are usually dismissed as cranks, religious fanatics, scientific ignoramuses, or some combination of the preceding. But that is a little harder to do when the person raising the objection holds a named chair in the Department of Physics at Princeton University.

In a recent article in First Things magazine, Princeton physicist William Happer points out that even after the rise in carbon dioxide levels in the world’s atmosphere over the last century or so, the figure is still low by historical standards. To be specific, right before the Industrial Revolution got under way, ice cores and other data show that the carbon-dioxide content of the atmosphere was about 270 parts per million. It now stands at 390 parts per million. But about 80 million years ago, the level was 1000 parts per million, and guess what? The plants loved it (they need a certain amount in the air to survive at all), and life was just as abundant on earth then as it is now, if not more so.

Happer’s point is that calling carbon dioxide a pollutant is like calling rain a hazardous substance because when you get too much, it causes a flood. Yes, floods are bad, but we don’t pass laws against rain as a result. And passing laws against carbon dioxide isn’t much more logical.

According to Happer, the science of “climate change” (which is now the preferred term in some circles) has been co-opted by political and economic interests who have fallen victim to a species of mass hysteria. The climate crusade is our age’s great bandwagon, a secular cause that delivers dictates which are as close to moral absolutes as secular authorities get. The logic goes something like this, with my parenthetical comments about each step: Scientists say burning fossil fuels raises the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (true), which in turn will cause the average temperature to rise (maybe) and lead to all kinds of problems ranging from rises in the world’s ocean level to massive and sudden climatic shifts that will cause famines, floods, and other disruptive effects (not clear at all). Therefore, we have a moral imperative to burn as little fossil fuel as possible, and this moral imperative takes precedence over just about any other cause you care to name, because if climate change makes the world uninhabitable, then nothing else matters. The world views of most authorities in this matter do not include the conventional religious category called “sin,” but based on this logic, burning fossil fuels, or even renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol which contribute to the carbon dioxide burden, is the closest thing they have to a sin.

What Happer does is to call into question the earliest link in this logical chain: will rising carbon dioxide levels really cause problems of the magnitude that Al Gore and people like him believe? There are two answers to that question. One is, maybe not. Global average temperatures have changed a lot more in the past, and a lot faster, than anything we have seen in recent history, and life and humanity survived. The second answer is, even if some of the dire predictions come to pass, human life is incredibly adaptable. People find ways around all sorts of problems, and while any major climate change produces both good and harm, it will probably happen slowly enough to allow us to adapt to the changing circumstances. This is the way life evolved in the first place, and the only thing that would prevent us from adapting in the future is despotism of the kind that presently runs Cuba, for example, which has been frozen in many ways in the year 1959. Some people hold up this socialist state as a shining example of “sustainable development,” but it has achieved this dubious distinction by rigid controls on the physical, mental, and spiritual lives of its citizens. And something like Cuba’s dictatorship would be necessary if we were to fulfill the fondest wishes of those who want our carbon footprints to vanish.

I’m finishing this blog on Sunday morning, May 22, which dawned pretty much like any other day. If yesterday was Judgment Day, I guess I must have missed out. At least Mr. Camping had the courage to be specific enough so that his claim could be falsified, as indeed it has been. The predictions of the global-warming camp are so fungible that tying them down is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Happer says that after the disclosure of emails by climate scientists who were trying to restrain publications of the opposition, more people are starting to realize that all is not as we have been told for many years. Let’s hope that reality and truth will come to the fore instead of group thinking, panic, and a misguided attempt to achieve secular salvation through atonement by the sacrifice of our carbon-based economy.

Sources: William Happer’s article “The Truth About Greenhouse Gases” appears on pp. 33-38 of the June/July 2011 issue of First Things magazine. I also referred to a graph of carbon-dioxide content in the atmosphere over time that appears in the Wikipedia article “Carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

To Compete or Not To Compete: Engineers and the Non-Compete Clause

In today’s engineering job market, changing jobs every few years is almost a given because the days of lifetime employment with one firm are virtually extinct, at least in the U. S. If you become a qualified specialist in a certain field, it is more than likely that when you change jobs, you’ll most easily find a new job in the same field, perhaps even working for a competitor to your previous firm, or a new startup founded by members of your previous firm. And if that happens, you had better make sure that you read all those papers your previous employer made you sign when you started work there, because the chances are that one of them contained what is called a “non-compete clause.”

A non-compete clause, also known to employment lawyers as a “covenant not to compete” or CNC, is an agreement on the part of the employee not to compete with the employer after termination of employment. Usually a limited time and even a limited geographic area are specified, so a typical clause might read, “In the event of Mr. Blank leaving the Company, he agrees not to engage in a similar engineering pursuit for any firms in competition with the Company within the state of X for a period of two years following termination of employment with the Company.” Being a matter of civil law, these clauses are governed by state codes, not Federal law. I was not too surprised to learn that, except in the case of equity owners of a firm, California absolutely prohibits any form of non-compete clause in employment agreements. But most other states allow it as long as the terms are reasonable and the purpose is to preserve the firm’s legitimate business interests.

Even in states that allow such agreements, there are definite limits to the clause’s scope. A company can’t bar you for life from doing a specific kind of engineering, nor can they be too general about the kind of work you are agreeing not to compete in. So there is inevitably a matter of judgment involved, and like many other civil-law matters, as long as nobody decides to sue you, you can (from a legal standpoint, at least) do whatever you want. In this aspect, non-compete agreements resemble nondisclosure agreements, which bar an employee from taking or using business-critical information once they leave a firm.

Despite all these restrictions, the fact is that many startup companies are formed around engineers who used to work for larger firms where they were unable to obtain management support for a new technology, or who left for other reasons. The company that many historians regard as the cornerstone of Silicon Valley, Fairchild Semiconductor, was formed when a group of engineers hired by William Shockley for his Shockley Transistor Corporation got tired of Shockley’s incompetent management and left to form a startup. Since none of them were part owners of Shockley's firm, at least to my knowledge, and California prohibits non-compete clauses, they were unhindered by such obstructions and were able to found the Silicon Valley we know today.

But there are clearly ethical questions involved when an engineer considers quitting one company to go to work for a rival firm doing basically the same type of work. Who is affected by this action? The parties to it are the firm the engineer is leaving (call it Company A), the new firm he or she is joining (Company B), the engineer, and the wider customer base and public served by the business both firms are engaged in.

From the viewpoint of Company A, it is a bad thing that the engineer is leaving and will now provide staff resources to B instead of A. That is why Company A insisted on having a non-compete clause in the engineer’s employment contract in the first place. Company B’s interests are more or less directly opposed to those of Company A, at least in the narrow sense. To the extent the engineer in question has rare or unique skills, Company B’s gain is Company A’s loss. Once the engineer leaves A for B, he or she casts in their lot with Company B, assuming there was enough incentive in terms of salary, job opportunities, equity, etc. to make it a good move.

What about the line of business as a whole? Generally speaking, customers and the public benefit from more competition rather than less. Taking things to a fictional extreme, you could imagine an industry dominated by one giant company which maintains extremely restrictive non-compete agreements with all its engineers. This outfit could charge whatever it wanted because nobody could ever hire away its engineers to start up a rival firm.

So it looks like Company A against the world, and that is one reason why, like patents and other forms of intellectual property, there are time and often geographic restrictions on non-compete clauses. The public interest is best served by restricting them, or, as in the case of California, prohibiting them nearly altogether.

My advice to engineers just starting their careers is to actually sit down and read all that boilerplate fine print in your employment contract. Since you signed it already, you are formally bound by its terms, and when the time comes for you to look for another job, you should be aware of possible restrictions on your freedom of movement. Whether or not a non-compete clause should influence your choice of future employment is an ethical as well as a legal question, but one you should make in an informed way.

Sources: I found some useful background on the non-compete clause in the Wikipedia article “Non-compete clause.”

Monday, May 09, 2011

Obama Names A Fractious Panel to Study Fracking

My grandfather sold oil-field equipment for a living, and my mother was born in Big Spring in the midst of the West Texas oil boom of 1929. My wife’s grandfather spent some time as a roustabout in the oil fields. So to that extent, our roots extend deep into the Texas oil and gas tradition, and lately my wife’s father has benefited, however indirectly, from the drilling going on in North Texas to tap the vast natural-gas reserve in the Barnett Shale, a hydrocarbon-rich rock deposit underlying Fort Worth and surrounding areas. He still owns a home in Fort Worth, and a few years ago we were somewhat surprised to see a drilling rig spring up in a vacant lot only a few miles from his house. Later we were not so surprised when he got offers to lease the mineral rights under his ordinary 50s-era tract home, which he did. All this is to make it clear that when it comes to any controversy over the drilling technique called “fracking,” I am hardly an unbiased party.

The problem with the Barnett Shale, as with many other gas and oil deposits around the world that remain after the easy ones to extract have been depleted, is that the good stuff is trapped inside rock that is not porous enough to let it flow out. Over the years, production firms have devised a number of techniques that have brought the cost of extraction down to within reach of today’s higher natural-gas prices so that they can make money drilling in formations such as the Barnett Shale, even at the price of paying hundreds of homeowners for rights in a metropolitan area. One such technique is directional drilling, which replaces the old-time forest of tens or hundreds of independent drilling rigs with one sophisticated rig which drills a number of holes, first vertically down to the depth of the deposit, then horizontally through it to increase the area of contact with the hydrocarbon-bearing formation. But the controversial technique comes next: the high-pressure injection of a solution of chemicals and particles in water that cracks open spaces in the rock, and props them open so that the gas or oil can flow more freely.

There is nothing particularly new about the fracking process, which has been used for years but not so often in populated areas until recently. But when you shove a lot of chemical-bearing water down a hole, it’s all got to go somewhere. Obviously, the producers try to extract as much of it as possible and clean it up before disposing of it when the wells start to produce, but in the nature of things you will never recover all of what you put in. And although the gas-bearing strata are typically far below the water table where most water wells end, sometimes there are leaks and unexpected ways for the fracking fluid to show up in nearby wells, or even on the surface of the ground. The production firms have been less than forthcoming about what exactly is in their mixtures of fracking fluid, since they feel it might give an edge to their competitors to reveal the exact formula. But even this reluctance is starting to be overcome by government inquiries and other pressures from citizens’ groups concerned about the long-term health issues that might arise from having this stuff in the ground in one’s neighborhood.

So far, so objective. Now it is time for my editorializing. According to a recent New York Times report, President Obama has named a special seven-member panel to look into the safety and environmental issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing. The President’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is quoted as saying, “America’s vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits, but we need to ensure we harness these resources safely.”

Let’s look at the members of the panel from a political point of view. It is headed by John Deutch, an MIT chemistry professor and director of a gas-pipeline operating company. It might be safe to count him in the ranks of promoters of increased gas exploration. Another person on the panel who one might believe is in favor of actually getting more natural gas to the public is Stephen Holditch, who chairs the department of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M. After him, hang onto your hats.

The other five members are: (1) the president of the Environmental Defense Fund; (2) a former aide to Al Gore past member of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; (3) an ex-Secretary of Environmental Affairs for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; (4) energy consultant Daniel Yergin, who wrote a book called “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power”; and (5) Mark Zoback, who is a professor of geophysics at Stanford University.

Well, this is one of those times when I started out wanting to bust out of the barn with guns blazing, so to speak, but now I’m having second thoughts. Zoback, for example, seems to be a model of the scientist-engineer with a conscience. Besides writing a textbook on reservoir geomechanics which is probably one that the production companies use in training their own engineers, he teaches a course on “Sustainability and Collapse,” whatever that might mean. Still, I see the potential for deadlock in this panel. It looks like only three members are solidly from the oil-production community, and the remaining four are more critical. That’s why there are seven members and not six, so the fourth can break a tie the way the President wants it broken. And just putting an Aggie petroleum engineer in the same room with a former aide to Al Gore seems tantamount to throwing a match into a gas tank just to see what will happen.

Congressional Republicans make the sound point that the Environmental Protection Agency already has full authority to regulate fracking, and does. The big change that has happened recently in the business is not the technology, but the fact that the technology is now operating in areas where large numbers of urbanites see it and wonder what it may be doing to their water supply. Combined with last summer’s Deepwater Horizon accident, these political factors have motivated the Obama administration to try and have it both ways: to appear to be promoting domestic natural-gas exploration and production while in fact encouraging an inquiry and rulemaking effort that can only slow it down, if it does anything at all. What are the chances that the blue-ribbon panel will look at the situation and say, “By gum, you know, there’s actually too many regulations about environmental aspects of fracking. Let’s get rid of some of them so we can get more gas faster!”? Not large, you say? You’d be right.

Perhaps the best we can hope for from this panel is a well-footnoted but divided report, with a minority favoring less regulation, the majority favoring more, and the energy companies just trying to do their job responsibly in response. To the extent the panel’s actions hinder gas and oil production without making a real difference in the environment, it will have been a waste of time. To the extent they prevent a future Deepwater-Horizon type of accident in, say Edgecliff Village south of Fort Worth, well, then, maybe it was all worthwhile.

Sources: The New York Times report on the formation of the hydraulic-fracturing panel appeared on May 6, 2011 in the online edition at

Sunday, May 01, 2011

End of the Line for the Shuttle

As of this evening (Sunday May 1), the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor has been postponed till at least May 8, a week from today. To fly, Endeavor needs hydraulic power. To make hydraulic power in space, Endeavor has three auxiliary power units (APUs) on the craft that run on hydrazine, a nasty compound that can freeze if it gets too cold, as it is apt to in space. So each APU has a heater to keep the hydrazine warm. Something went wrong with one of the power circuits to a heater, and they’re going to have to replace a switchbox. So neither President Obama nor the estimated three-quarter-million people who gathered in Florida to watch the launch had the satisfaction of seeing Endeavor take off for the last time. This turn of events was regrettable, perhaps, but in these last flights NASA seems to be erring on the side of caution, which is just as well.

In past blog posts, I have made it clear that I think the Space Shuttle program ran about a decade too long. After the 2003 Columbia disaster, it was time to rethink the nation’s entire approach to space and space exploration. Instead, patches were applied to patches, and the program has limped along for eight more years, fortunately without further loss of life, unless you count James Vanover, a 53-year-old contract engineer who fell to his death at the launch pad last March 14. I’m sure Mrs. Vanover counts him, even if others don’t.

Even the simplest orbit-capable rocket is a horrendously complex engineered system. And making one that is both safe enough and powerful enough to carry people­–and all their necessary comforts of home such as food, air, water, and room enough to move around in–is vastly harder than simply putting some non-breathing, non-eating, and expendable hardware up there. So for decades, the vast majority of scientists who really want to do science in space have favored cutting back or eliminating manned space flight in preference to putting much more efficient dollars into unmanned launches of robot probes such as the highly successful Mars rover.

Of course, science and engineering are hopelessly confused in the public mind. Just this morning at church, one of the worship team leaders said something about “this doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.” “Rocket scientist” is one of those phrases that has taken on a life of its own, although you could argue that the last true rocket scientist was Newton, in the sense that he wrote down the fundamental equations that turned rocketry from a mysterious art into an engineering chore. Ever since then, we’ve had lots of rocket engineers, but strictly speaking, no rocket scientists.

It’s fruitless to point out these pedantic trivialities to millions who will go on saying “rocket scientist” and thinking the United States will take another big step toward the Hall of Shame if we can no longer put a man into space. But manned space flight has always been about something more than science, or even engineering, though it has taken billions of dollars’ worth of both to achieve it and keep it going. In the 1960s the space race was a sublimated way to fight the Cold War. In the 1980s, the Shuttle program turned into a political football that provided convenient ways for congressmen to send federal dollars to their states and districts. Any science that gets done with it is sort of a byproduct, a kind of window-dressing to make it more presentable to the public. This is not to criticize the scientists who manage to get good science done even with all the constraints posed by the Shuttle. But if we had the last thirty years to do all over again, with the same funding but no people in space, we probably could have built five or six Hubble telescopes or their more advanced equivalents for the same money it cost to keep the Shuttle cripping along all this time.

From an engineering point of view, the politics has clouded the situation again. Constellation, the leading candidate to replace the Shuttle, is now basically canceled, and there is no clear consensus on what we ought to do next. One option favored by President Obama (and this is one of the few proposals he has made which seems sensible to me) is to turn NASA into a contract-supervision outfit, and let private enterprise conduct the work of space exploration, including making money at it if that can be done. Clearly, the U. S. government will be the main, if not the only, customer for the near future, even if most of NASA’s work is privatized. And that brings us back to the main question: what good is manned space flight?

It’s not science. And it’s engineering, strictly speaking, only if it makes money. So what if we as a nation explore space for the same reason mountaineers climb mountains: because it’s there? That is an esthetic, or if you prefer, even a religious reason. And there are large numbers of people involved with space and related matters (such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) whose secret or not-so-secret hope is that we will either find somebody else out there, or we’ll eventually move out there ourselves in a big way, not a few at a time in a glorified flying tuna can.

Thinking that it is man’s destiny either to live on other planets, or to find beings who live on other planets, is so far an act of faith. While this is a free country and everyone has a right to their own beliefs, we also have what is called disestablishment of religion. That means one religious group can’t get the government to tax everybody to pay for their own worship services. To the extent that manned spaceflight is an act of worship in the religion of space destiny, I for one would like to see my tax dollars go somewhere else.

Sources: The latest Space Shuttle launch schedules, news releases, and other helpful information can be found at the NASA website