Monday, June 27, 2011

Power to the Set-Top Box: Who’s Involved?

One of the most challenging aspects of engineering ethics is figuring out who the players are. Sometimes half the ethics battle is won once you have identified all the significant parties who may be affected by a given engineering enterprise or decision. This process is especially important in examining an issue that I had frankly never given any thought to until I read a New York Times article entitled “Atop television sets, a power drain that runs nonstop.” It turns out that the set-top box—the device that interfaces your cable TV signal to your TV—along with any digital video recorder (e. g. TIVO) you may have, together consume more electricity annually than many newer-model refrigerators. Whether this is a problem depends on who you are and your point of view. But first let’s identify the players.

Most numerous, and as usual the least informed, are the consumers of cable-TV services in the U. S. Nearly all households in urban and suburban areas have cable TV, and that means over 160 million of these boxes are out there. Next in the lineup are the cable-TV providers: the companies that rent the boxes (typically) to the consumers and decide how to operate them. It turns out that two of their priorities, namely fast service to the consumer when the TV is turned on, and convenience in system maintenance and data downloading, dictate that the set-top box and recorder (if present) are usually turned on in fully operational mode 24 hours a day. Since the average box-recorder combination uses about 50 watts, that’s like having a 50-watt light bulb turned on all the time. Doesn’t sound like much, but multiply that by 160 million and you’ve got a lot of power.

Next, there are the box and recorder manufacturers themselves. Many of them market devices in Europe, where there is a higher cost for electricity and consequently a demand for boxes that go into snooze or sleep mode, in which their power consumption decreases anywhere from 50% to 90% or more. True, to wake them up out of sleep takes maybe half a minute, but European viewers appear to be more patient than American viewers. Or else, the first set-top boxes over there ever marketed took 45 seconds to start up and your average Frenchman thinks that’s just a fact of life, like not being able to get good crepes Suzette at a fast-food joint. Some of the sleep-mode boxes are sold to the U. S., but the cable operators here don’t take advantage of that feature, by and large.

Farther down the list of interested parties are the U. S. power utility companies, the Federal government (which has voluntary Energy Star ratings, but so far no mandatory regulations about this matter), various state and local governments, and finally media outlets such as the New York Times, which go around looking for ways that they can encourage the U. S. to be more like Europe, among other things. Some people would include the whole rest of the world because increased power consumption means a larger carbon footprint, which can lead to climate change, etc., but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Once you know the players, you ask how the game is being played. Well, cable service is a utility like any other. Only in this matter, it turns out that in addition to paying the cable bill with its black-and-white figure, taking one utility’s service results in an invisible increase in another utility cost, namely your electric bill. In the U. S. a kilowatt-hour costs between 10 and 20 cents, depending on where you live, so the indirect monetary cost to the average consumer of cable and DVR service because of increased power consumption is between $45 and $90 a year. In most people’s budgets, that is not a big deal, but if you knew it could be reduced by more than half if you were just patient enough to wait 45 seconds whenever you turned on the TV, would you choose to save that amount?

For various reasons, that is a choice that most U. S. consumers have never been asked to make. Some people who are hyper-energy-conscious may see this article and start to bombard their cable provider with demands for energy-efficient cable service. This is a fairly new thing in the consumer-marketing field, and there is no general term for it. I guess you could call it politically-correct market appeal. It’s the kind of thing that goes on when you see ads for sneakers that aren’t any better, and may be more expensive than the average mass-marketed sneaker, but come with a certificate guaranteeing that they were made by contented American union workers and not in some sweatshop in a South Pacific island. Some people really would choose to wait 45 seconds to watch TV if they knew their carbon footprint was thereby made smaller. (Of course, it would get a whole lot smaller if they just threw out the TV altogether, but that’s a different story.)

On a personal note, I may have mentioned that my last career in industry before becoming a full-time academic was as an engineer helping to design Scientific-Atlanta’s first set-top box, a job I quit thirty years ago this summer as the project was collapsing around my ears. That firm went on to pick itself up from that six-million-dollar mistake and pioneer the business of “smart” cable boxes. The one we designed—when it worked—had less computer power than a pocket calculator, but turned on right away. But nobody who is used to the super-enhanced services of today’s cable providers would want to switch to such a primitive device—it’d be like swapping all our cars for Model Ts. The power consumed by cable TV boxes is probably not going to be a big factor in the future of western civilization. But it’s worth thinking about, or at least reading about, I hope.

Sources: Elizabeth Rosenthal’s piece on this issue appeared in the June 25, 2011 online edition of the New York Times at


Monday, June 20, 2011

From NASA to USSG: Fixing the U. S. Space Programs

As readers of this blog may have realized by now, some problems in engineering ethics lie mainly not in the bad decisions of individuals, but in wrongly conceived or executed institutional organizations and policies. A lot of well-intentioned people working in a poorly structured outfit can nevertheless do real damage. The engineering ethics poster-child example of this is NASA, which holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for one of the leading engineering ethics case studies, the 1986 Challenger disaster. While human lives are invaluable, much harm also results from waste, inefficiency, and mismanagement, and NASA has had its share of that too. But I am not here merely to register another carp about NASA, but to draw your attention to a well-considered and politically astute alternative to the present mish-mosh that is U. S. space policy: the creation of a United States Space Guard (USSG).

Writing in the Winter 2011 issue of The New Atlantis, space consultant James C. Bennett describes an idea that originated with U. S. Air Force Lt. Col. Cynthia A. S. McKinley in 2000. She looked at how a basic structure that might once have been appropriate for a small federal agency, which the National Aeronautics and Space Agency once was in the early 1960s, was inflated all out of proportion during the Great Space Race that got the U. S. to the moon first in 1969. But to use a human-body analogy, what remained after that unique experience bears some resemblance to what might happen if a 110-pound professional jockey decided to become a temporary Sumo wrestler, and bloated up to 600 pounds for one wrestling match. Even if he won, he’d have a lot of trouble getting his old jockeying job back afterwards, and NASA has been the 600-pound Sumo wrestler in the nation’s space efforts ever since.

The domination by NASA of virtually all important aspects of U. S. space activities, whether military, civilian, governmental, commercial, regulatory, or scientific, has distorted and rendered inefficient or neglected a lot of things that might have fared better, and might in the future fare better, if we reorganized our whole approach, which is what the Space Guard proposal does. I don’t have room to describe all the ingenious details that Bennett has added to McKinley’s basic idea, but I will concentrate on the fundamental analogy between a familiar and well-functioning organization, namely the U. S. Coast Guard, and the proposed U. S. Space Guard.

Though usually engaged in peaceful work such as search and rescue operations, navigational facilitation for commercial sea traffic, and other fairly routine tasks, the Coast Guard is a cadre of officers in uniform committed to service, at the cost of their lives if necessary. As Bennett points out, the informal motto of the Coast Guard in lifesaving efforts is “You have to go out, you don’t have to come back.” Making personnel of a new U. S. Space Guard similarly sworn to duty, with the recognition of a uniform, military rank and command structure, and so on, would at last acknowledge the fact that space travel and space-related work is hazardous and astronauts, at least, put their lives on the line. We expect that of policemen, firemen, and soldiers, but to expect it of civil servants (technically, that’s what astronauts are) is not fitting, to say the least.

The establishment of a U. S. Space Guard would allow the collection of a number of important but unglamorous space-related tasks under one roof where a common body of experts could coordinate activities which now are spread far and wide. For example, responsibility for communications satellites is presently spread among agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Commerce, and NASA (if any of their launch vehicles are used). The FAA is also presently involved in regulating some “black” (secret) U. S. Air Force military space work, which does not fit the agency well. Transferring these sorts of tasks to the new USSG would make more sense.

Besides remedying such existing confusions and inefficiencies, and freeing up NASA to do what it was founded to do in the 1950s—namely far-out exploratory and scientific research—the USSG could spawn helpful and fruitful new efforts. We could start a Space Academy, along the lines of the other service academies such as Annapolis and West Point. We could maintain a Space Reserve of former USSG service people who could be recalled to active duty should the need arise. And best of all from my point of view, the USSG would be a fresh start organizationally, instead of yet another patch or fix to the dysfunctional organization that is NASA today.

This is not to say that NASA has no good features. Obviously it does. Its unmanned science programs are still among the best in the world, doing wonders with inadequate funding. But so much of what NASA does depends not on national needs and plans, but on whose congressional district and which company does it, that only a well-planned and politically wise transition from the status quo to a new order in which the USSG plays the main role will improve things. At least, this idea is the best one I’ve seen addressing the question of what the U. S. should do about space. I just hope that for once, reason and common sense will prevail over the less salutary aspects of politics, and we’ll do the right thing about it.

Sources: James C. Bennett’s article “Proposing a ‘Coast Guard’ For Space” appears in the Winter 2011 edition of The New Atlantis, pp. 50-68.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Finding a Job in a Technocracy

Last month, graduation ceremonies were held all over the U. S., and now the newly minted ex-students face the challenging task of finding a job. A recent New York Times report details just how challenging it will be in today’s economy. And engineers, even recently graduated ones, need to ponder the effects of their work on the employment picture.

First, the bad news. After the world economy nearly melted down in 2008, a severe recession (some are now calling it the Great Recession) caused widespread job losses and a general slowdown for the better part of two years. It seems that by now the U. S. economy, when measured strictly by production of goods and services, has fully recovered to the level of productivity that prevailed before the 2008 debacle. The only difference is, it’s humming along with 7 million fewer jobs than were in existence in 2008. And what is worse from the viewpoint of job hunters, is that firms are very reluctant to take on new workers, but are spending bucketloads on new equipment, much of which is made overseas. Since 2008, spending on employment has risen only 2 percent, but spending on capital equipment has soared by 26 percent.

Much of this capital equipment consists of highly engineered manufacturing technology such as computers, robotics, and other devices that allow makers of goods (and often providers of services as well) to replace people with machines. This sort of thing has gone on at least since the dawn of history, when some clever person devised an irrigation water wheel pump that one person could operate while replacing four or five people armed with individual buckets. But at certain times, a whole lot of people are thrown out of work at once and replaced by a whole lot of technology, and the newly unemployed people tend to notice.

Another time this happened was the 1930s. Although statistics were kept differently then, by some estimates the U. S. unemployment rate soared as high as 25% and stayed close to that for most of the decade. Some people then saw the advances in manufacturing machinery as an important cause of the disruptions accompanying the Great Depression, and posed various solutions, including the short-lived political movement called Technocracy. Technocrats, as they termed themselves, believed that the economy was too complicated to be left in the hands of non-expert business people, who had clearly let things get out of hand. The solution posed by the technocrats was to abolish money and place the economy in charge of technical experts—engineers, mostly, but with a few doctors and economists mixed in. The engineers would allocate a new unit of exchange that represented energy (joules were proposed) so that everybody would get an equal amount of energy and be free to decide what to do with it.

The technocrats turned out to be better engineers than politicians (in fact, most of the leaders of the Technocracy movement had little engineering experience either), and Technocracy as a political movement vanished from the scene shortly after World War II began, when the Great Depression ended in a flurry of economic activity stimulated by war production. But the idea of putting government in the charge of experts has by no means gone away.

One could even argue that the present White House occupant represents modern-day technocracy carried to an extreme. The Obama administration pushed through a health-care plan that envisions centralized monitoring and control of supply by experts. Its Environmental Protection Agency has extended its reach far beyond former limits and opposed state regulatory agencies in its efforts to apply its own expertise to everyone’s pollution problems. And while organized labor is favored in certain ways, the overall trend of the economy toward increased mechanization, as opposed to higher rates of employment, has continued unabated.

Besides the Technocracy movement, a few voices in the 1930s called for an alternate vision of what could be done about the increasing replacement of human workers by machines. When it takes fewer people to make the same amount of stuff, you can either get rid of some workers and keep the remainder working full time, or you can lower the number of hours per week that everyone works and keep everyone working at reduced hours. The latter possibility was the basis of the notion that in the future, most people would have to work only ten or fifteen hours a week to earn as much as they got from forty or fifty hours of toil every week before mechanization. The promoters of this vision saw a landscape of leisure time opening up in the future, as people enjoyed the fruits of advances in productive automation by working less for the same pay.

There are many flies in that ointment, as history has shown, but perhaps the biggest reason why this is not happening today is what you can call the fixed and overhead charges associated with hiring people. Back in the early 1930s, there was no Social Security, no Medicare, no tax break for employers who paid for workers’ health insurance, and little advanced training needed for most jobs. So the cost of hiring a worker simply amounted to what he or she was paid. If things were still that simple, it might make sense for a company to retain most of its employees at reduced hours as it buys equipment that allows it to make each unit of product with a lower total man-hour input.

However, we have strayed far from that path today, with a huge number of fixed costs associated with every hire, and those costs are slated to rise if the health-care machinery passed by Congress remains in place. Quite literally the last thing many employers want to do right now is to hire another warm body, much preferring to acquire equipment that needs no training or health insurance, can be depreciated on a tax return, and does just as good a job, if not better, than a human being can. And engineers have largely made this possible. All in all, however, I sometimes wonder if the tools made by engineers have been used wisely by managers, corporation heads, and politicians. When it gets to the point that engineers design tools that are used largely to replace engineers, we at least need to think twice before proceeding.

Sources: The Austin American-Statesman reprinted a New York Times article on labor versus equipment costs by Catherine Rampell on June 12, 2011, page E1.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Should Cancer Be a Profitable Opportunity?

In 2003, my wife was treated (successfully, thank God) for breast cancer. And right now, her sister is preparing to be treated for a serious blood disease by means of a bone-marrow transplant, which is also used to treat many kinds of cancer. So my close relatives and I have personal experience with an industry that accounts by some measures for as much as $60 billion of economic activity, much of it going to advanced high-tech science and engineering work (which is how I’m relating it to this blog).

Picture my emotions, then, when the other day I received in the mail a thing that looked at first glance like an issue of Time Magazine, with the red border on the cover. Only the top line was not “Time” but “Timing” and the headline read “Cancer: The $60 billion industry” It turned out to be an investment flyer boosting all kinds of “opportunities” to put your money into this or that promising cancer treatment. This brings up an issue that goes to the heart of how we as a culture handle illness: to what extent should the profit motive be involved in medical care?

Historically, physicians have been among the best-educated and well-paid members of the community, even back when they could do little but listen and give fatherly advice. Since the Scientific Revolution revolutionized medicine starting about 1700, the field has developed in the direction of highly organized combinations of institutions, corporations, and societies all exchanging information, products and services of value, and delivering health care which by most measures continues to improve in quality year by year—but at a steeply increasing price. Anyone who hasn’t totally ignored the news over the last year or two knows that we in the U. S. pay a higher proportion of our GDP (gross domestic product) for health care, but what we get for our money is generally not that much better than other industrialized countries that pay less.

Any discussion along these lines has already made an implicit assumption: namely, that the problem consists of maximizing health-care delivery efficiency, and we simply aren’t doing it as well as some other countries. But is that really the issue?

What if the problem is not so much macroeconomics and political and social forms of organization, but the motivations and ethical stances of the people involved? Here is what I mean.

Would you rather have a doctor who went into medicine because he wanted to heal people, or because he wanted to afford vacations at Cap Ferrat? Would you rather deal with an organization whose members are dedicated primarily to the healing of patients, or whose owners are anonymous stockholders simply wanting the best return on investment possible? I think the answer in the case of the doctor is pretty clear. In the case of the organization, things begin to get a little fuzzy.

If you look at the history of medical innovations, it is fairly clear that the most favorable environment for them appears to be a place where the profit motive plays a fairly unrestricted role in guiding developments, rather than dictatorial control by some government-funded bureaucracy. This is not to neglect the role of such agencies as the U. S. National Institutes of Health in supporting basic medical research whose future profitability is unclear. But medicine is so complex today that large and expensive organizations are needed to pursue technologically-intense advances (including drugs as well as other forms of treatment). And judging by results, the best environment for such organizations appears to be places where taking risks with large investments in new medical ideas can pay off in commensurate profits, and the marketplace is used to signal the distribution of resources.

But I’m still bothered by the notion that a thing which on a personal level is an unmixed curse and tragedy—namely, cancer—is also the basis of what is being promoted by the flyer I mentioned as a wonderful opportunity to get rich quick. The reason that individual doctors have been well-paid members of society is that they have both invested years of their lives learning their profession, and have also (historically, at least) sworn an oath to use their knowledge in socially beneficial ways. The fact that most doctors no longer take the Hippocratic Oath as part of their medical training is not encouraging, and may have something to do with the rampant abuse of prescription pharmaceuticals that we have today. The medical business used to do pretty well with almost no advertising at all: no ads for doctors, no ads for prescription drugs. As I understand it, the prohibition against ads by doctors was self-imposed by their professional associations. There have always been advertisements for over-the-counter medications, but until recent times they were looked down upon and relegated to the small-type back pages of magazines.

One can argue that the consumer should be king in all this, and in some ways we suffer from a lack of consumer control in the health-care industry. But consumers can decide only if they have a clear financial incentive to do so, and if they have competent professional guidance about matters beyond their understanding. The so-called “twelve-cent problem” is the fact that only 12 cents out of every medical dollar comes out of the U. S. consumer’s pocket. If we had to pay only 12 cents for every dollar of food we consumed, I expect the food industry would become as inefficient and bloated as the health-care industry (not to mention bloating us too). And the presence of huge amounts of TV and other advertising for prescription drugs of questionable utility distorts the environment in which medical decisions are made. I for one would not miss most medical advertising, especially camouflaged brochures asking me to profit from someone else’s misery. But in so many things in politics, the question is how to get from here to there. And for that, I don’t have an easy answer.

Sources: The 12-cent problem is described in many places, among which is a blog by Dr. David Gratzer posted on Jan. 26, 2011 at