Monday, October 28, 2013
Software failures can have all sorts of bad consequences, ranging from minor annoyances up to and including death. On that scale, the very public problems that people currently run into when they try to use the Affordable Care Act's website to buy federally-mandated insurance are somewhere in the middle. (Since President Obama is on record as having no objection to the term "Obamacare" for the Act, I will use it too from this point on.) To my knowledge, no one has yet died as a direct consequence of not being able to use the site. But on the other hand, it's hard to think of another software-related issue that has garnered so much negative publicity in as short a time. While there is plenty of blame to go around, the question I'm interested in today has to do with the ethics of software engineering, and what lessons this debacle can teach us along those lines.
Software engineering is a relative latecomer to the engineering fold. There were only a few dozen programmable computers in the world as late as 1950, and the first U. S. undergraduate programs in software engineering were not accredited until 2003. But few types of engineering involve the average non-technical customer more directly than the design of high-volume websites, which requires strategic and organizational planning as an essential aspect of the overall process.
According to published reports, the rollout of the www.healthcare.gov website was something of a rush job. For political reasons, the Oct. 1 deadline could not be postponed, and many changes were being made right up to the last minute. Finally, there was little time for beta testing with a small group of friendly and informative users who could find problems in time for them to be fixed before the main rollout.
I am glad I was not one of the people who worked on this website, but I can sympathize with them. My last major engineering job before deciding to go back to school for my Ph. D. was with a firm that wanted to make cable boxes, the little thing that sits on (or now, under) your TV and selects channels. The company had never made a large-volume consumer product before. Up to that time, most of their customers were military and scientific users who paid plenty for a few hand-crafted instruments. Despite the best efforts of our engineering team, the new box never worked right. At one point I had a conversation with an older engineer who said, "I'm looking at your group and what I see is a bunch of trapped engineers." I later learned that the company ended up recalling all the boxes from the field at a cost of six million dollars. By that time, I was in grad school and dealing with problems of a different sort.
Sometimes, engineers are placed in an impossible situation where even Superman couldn't deliver the goods as requested, and minimizing damage is about all you can do, at least to start with. The Obamacare website was a large and complex project that everyone knew would both receive tons of traffic from all sorts of people, most of them technically unsophisticated, and would also draw intense media attention, much of it potentially hostile. If it had been up to the software engineers, the project might have been "frozen" (no more major changes allowed) up to a year in advance of Oct. 1, and early versions would have gone through beta testing with larger and more varied groups of test subjects with plenty of time to work out the glitches before launch.
Obviously, that didn't happen. At the risk of sounding biased, I will state here that the way this project was carried out seems to reflect a mindset which is evident in other actions of the Obama administration. The President and a circle of powerful like-minded people in the administration have a set of ideas which they all agree on as The Way Things Should Be. Philosophically, they are idealists in the sense that they start with ideas, and then try to make reality conform to their ideas. Evidently, the political people in charge of implementing Obamacare were coming up with more ideas for the website right up to the time that it was turned on, and disregarded the hard engineering realities of designing a website that must handle many millions of users who are faced with a fine if they don't sign up for insurance through the site by the end of the year.
The problem with philosophical idealism is that it sometimes collides with reality, and in such collisions, reality always wins. In such encounters, idealists may or may not learn the error of their ways. Of necessity, they end up doing what reality requires them to do, but often in a way that is inefficient, expensive, and more trouble than otherwise. A new deadline of November 30 has just been announced as the day by which www.healthcare.gov will be working. Jeffrey Zients, the Chief Performance Officer of the United States, is now in charge of fixing it, and has declared publicly that "Healthcare.gov is fixable." Any system that is not physically impossible is fixable given enough time and resources, but only time will tell whether Zients and his underlings can get the repairs done on time.
But the rocky startup has added more fuel to the fire of ill feeling that the U. S. public in general harbors toward the federal government. In a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released last week, only 19% of those polled said that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time. Before about 1970, most people did have such trust, but the trend since the early 1960s has been downward, falling below 50% around 1973 (the peak of the Vietnam War) and has risen above 50% since then only once: right after 9/11/2001 and the first war in Afghanistan. The fact that most people in the U. S. no longer think that their government can be trusted in this way goes beyond partisan politics to signal deep structural problems in the way power is allocated and used. This is much more than a problem in engineering ethics, but engineers have to deal with it like everyone else. And those working on www.healthcare.gov bear a particular responsibility to exhibit leadership in the days to come.
Sources: An article published online on Oct. 25, 2013 by Robert Pear and Sharon LeFraniere at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/us/politics/general-contractor-named-to-fix-health-web-site.html describes Jeffrey Zients's statements about the proposed repair of www.healthcare.gov by Nov. 30. I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Jeffrey Zients. Information on the history of accredited software engineering programs was taken from Chapter XIII, "Software Engineering Accreditation in the United States," by J. McDonald, M. J. Sebern, and J. R. Vallino, in Software Engineering: Effective Teaching and Learning Approaches and Practices, H. Ellis, S. Demurjian and J. F. Naveda, (eds.), Information Science Reference, 2008. The statistic on public confidence in the U. S. government was published online by the Pew organization at http://www.people-press.org/2013/10/18/trust-in-government-nears-record-low-but-most-federal-agencies-are-viewed-favorably/.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Last Saturday, October 19, was the date of the Second Annual Global Frackdown. In case you didn't hear, the Global Frackdown is an international day of activism on which people who believe that global warming is an oncoming train that's about to knock us silly, gather in groups and protest the oil industry's practice of fracking. Fracking is a technology that has produced renewed yields from old oil and gas fields and promises to make the United States largely energy-independent in a few years. But there is no question that fracking leads to the burning of more fossil fuel than otherwise, which is the reason for the Frackdown. According to the movement's website, there were Frackdown events scheduled even in Texas, where fracking is a native industry and practiced widely. Opponents of global warming seem to believe in their cause with an almost religious fervor, and for some it may be exactly that: a substitute religion, complete with a theology, an ethics, and an eschatology that foretells doom for the planet unless we get with the gospel of global warming.
The Frackdown is sponsored by an outfit called 350.org, whose guiding light is one Bill McKibben, a journalist and author of such books as Fight Global Warming Now, Enough, The End of Nature, and Eaarth. The last title requires a little explanation. McKibben's basic theme throughout is that humanity has transformed the globe into an artifact (thus The End of Nature). The rather unfortunate neologism "Eaarth" is McKibben's term for Earth.2, the new thing that isn't really a natural environment anymore, but isn't completely under our control either. Despite the world's new status as a manufactured product, the laws of physics have not been repealed, and McKibben claims there will be absolutely inevitable bad consequences that will follow if we keep acting as though we were just a slight perturbation in the thing we have historically called Nature. (Picture a 200-pound St. Bernard who still thinks he is a cute little cuddly puppy and tries to sit in your lap.) Chief among these perturbations is our burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which began with the Industrial Revolution and continues to be the single most important energy source worldwide. McKibben appears to believe as earnestly in the pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as he believes in the Bible (he is a practicing Methodist). The focus of his most recent efforts has been to sponsor grass-roots movements to give the fossil-fuel industry a bad reputation by means of divestiture movements, Global Frackdowns, and other activist measures sponsored through 350.org. Why 350? That is the alleged tipping point of parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, beyond which innumerable disasters loom. The current number (as of May 2013) is around 400 ppm, by the way.
I picked up McKibben's Eaarth expecting a uniform challenge to my blood pressure, and for the first two chapters I found what I expected: a laundry list of terrible things that will happen, and are already happening, because of global warming, which is said to be largely if not exclusively due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the air. Storms, droughts, loss of seacoast regions, die-offs of all kinds, you name it. So far so bad.
But then I got to Chapter 3, "Backing Off" and I checked the cover to see if the book was really written by only one author. McKibben turns out to be what I would call a crypto-distributist. Distributism, as almost nobody knows, was a short-lived political movement popular in England in the 1930s, whose most well-known exponent was the writer G. K. Chesterton. Its slogan could have been "smaller, more local, more decentralized," and the old principles of distributism are in perfect harmony with McKibben's plans for us to survive the oncoming global-warming disaster. For example, here's a problem: climate change may cause entire monocultures of ag-industry genetically modified foods to disappear. Solution: have thousands of independent farmers supply hundreds of different varieties to farmers' markets in cities around the globe, and some of them at least will make it. Problem: giant fossil-fueled power grids with a few huge plants are wrecking the environment, and giant nuclear plants to replace them would cost too much. Solution: spread solar and other renewable energy sources everywhere so that people can be largely energy-independent down to the city block and house level.
The biggest change McKibben calls for is not technological but cultural. He thinks we will have to end our love affair with the super-independent lifestyle so encouraged by American culture and commerce, and live more like we used to, in interdependent communities where not only did you know your neighbors, you depended on them for essential things in your life such as services, goods, and jobs. Only in this way will we survive the bugbear of climate disasters that await us.
Eaarth is really two books: one written by a frenzied climate-change activist, and another written by a pleasant, earnest Methodist Sunday-school teacher who wants us all to get along together and be good little distributists, but without using that word. I see no indication that McKibben has even heard of distributism, but most of his solutions lie squarely in that tradition. And to the extent that they do, I by and large agree with them, although my pragmatic side doubts that McKibben and his fellow activists will be able to make much headway against the powerful entrenched political and economic interests who would like things to stay the way they are now.
To the extent that McKibben gets us to have more to do with our neighbors and less to do with huge multinational corporations, I hope he succeeds. But he seems to have reached the same desirable conclusions as the English distributists through what seems to me to be a long and unnecessary detour through the notion of global warming and its promised doomsdays, which has almost taken the place of a religion for many people. If you believe that buying an electric car will make environmental Armageddon 0.0001% less likely, then your faith has convenient ways for you to take actions that are unquestionably righteous, and to condemn those bad actors such as fossil-fuel companies that are unquestionably evil. But life is seldom that simple, and I hope McKibben writes another book that sets forth more substantial and eternal reasons for people to be more neighborly—and leaves out all that stuff about global warming.
Sources: Bill McKibben's Eaarth was published in 2010 by Henry Holt & Co. The website 350.org has links about the Global Frackdown and many other related activities. For more information on Distributism, see my blog of Sept. 22, 2008, "What Is Distributism, and Why Should Engineers Care?"
Monday, October 14, 2013
Last April 17, when the West Fertilizer Company's facility in the Texas town of the same name exploded, killing 15 and laying waste not only to the plant but to a good chunk of the town as well, it had been more than 25 years since a federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) inspector personally appeared at the plant. But that did not stop OSHA from issuing a $118,300 fine against the company last week, on October 9, for a list of 24 safety violations. This news came out despite the federal government's shutdown because Sen. Barbara Boxer's office found out about it and notified news media. The company has fifteen days to either pay the fine or file an administrative appeal with OSHA, and company representatives said they were conferring with lawyers about their next step.
Depending on how you view the idea of punishment, OSHA's fine either looks pretty silly or seems like a sound and reasonable step for such an agency to take. Let's examine the case for silly first.
Suppose you run a small fertilizer company that has gone through bankruptcy in the last few years and probably has total assets, land and facilities included, of at most a few million dollars, with a one-million-dollar liability insurance policy on the property. Due to causes that even combined federal and state investigations cannot precisely determine, your plant blows up, killing fifteen of your fellow citizens, causing over a hundred million dollars' worth of damage to your town, and by the way, completely demolishing the physical assets of your business. Half a year later, along comes OSHA and lays a fine of over $100,000 on you for various historical violations based on testimony of how the fertilizer that exploded was stored and for not having an emergency response plan. How do you respond?
I am not running the West Fertilizer Company, but at the moment, hiring lawyers to file an administrative appeal will be a lot cheaper than paying the fine up front, which would probably suck up most of any remaining cash and possibly make the company go out of business altogether. Not that they haven't had time to do anything more than deal with lawyers and lawsuits since April anyway. Obviously, the better time for OSHA to have levied such a fine would have been before the April explosion, when the changes possibly stimulated by such a large penalty might have had the positive effect of preventing the explosion. At this point, the fine brings to mind a scene in the animated film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. At one point, the brilliant but silent canine character Gromit, a skilled driver, goes on a wild car chase that winds up with his vehicle stalled out after a minor collision. Sitting there silently on a dark road, Gromit seems lost in the depths of despair, thinking that things cannot possibly get worse. And then they do: the car's airbag deploys in his face. OSHA's fine is timed as well as Gromit's airbag.
Whether the fine makes any sense depends on one's theory of punishment. In How to Think About the Great Ideas, philosopher Mortimer Adler points out that there are two main opposing theories of punishment: retribution and prevention. As retribution, OSHA's fine would be laughable, were it not for the somber circumstances. It is hard to imagine a retributive penalty for the West Fertilizer Company, which after all is a business firm, not an individual. It has already been reduced to smithereens, and unless you contemplate something primitive like blowing up the houses of the owners in retribution for the explosion of their plant, it is hard to conceive of a punishment that would be purely retributive in character.
OSHA fines appear to be based on the preventive theory of punishment, as are most administrative fines levied on corporations in general. While it is clear that it is way too late for this fine to prevent what happened in West, it is by no means too late for other operators of fertilizer manufacturing and storage facilities to take note of the fine and the reasons why it was levied. There are over a dozen similar fertilizer plants just in Texas alone, and it is a good bet that many of these are lacking in the same safety features that would have prevented or mitigated the accident in West. One hopes that insurance companies will take the initiative to motivate their fertilizer-plant customers to upgrade their facilities and procedures to make it less likely that something like the West explosion will happen. And there is always the chance that enlightened managers and owners will take it upon themselves to make the needed changes: following existing federal guidelines about how ammonium nitrate should be stored, putting emergency procedures in place and even practicing fire drills, and taking other sensible precautions that are not rocket science but often get neglected when an organization skids by for years and avoids the very unlikely but disastrous chance that a normally well-behaved chemical like ammonium nitrate will explode.
While it's true that the horse named the West fertilizer explosion has long since left the barn, there are many other horses of a similar nature who can be kept in place if fertilizer plants and facilities across the country learn from the sad experience of the Texas town that got famous for a reason nobody wanted. I hope that OSHA's actions, however tardy, serve as a warning to prevent another tragedy like the one we saw last spring.
Sources: The OSHA fine was described in a news article in the Waco Tribune that appeared in the online edition of Oct. 11 at http://www.wacotrib.com/news/business/west-fertilizer-co-cited-for-safety-violations/article_6d83a0cc-f28f-5763-ba23-f8229c0dfbae.html. Mortimer Adler's How to Think About the Great Ideas (Chicago: Carus Publishing, 2000) describes the great idea of Punishment on pp. 274-283.
Monday, October 07, 2013
I recently attended a scientific conference in the Northeast U. S. (I will be purposely vague about the exact venue for reasons that will shortly become clear), and on the plane I read an article by the Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield that pointed out an ironic fact about science: in order to do good science, scientists must act at least some of the time like non-scientists. Right after that, I got to see a good example of what he was talking about.
One of the main things that attract certain personalities to science and engineering is the supposed objectivity and emotion-free quality of science. Mr. Spock, the famously non-emotional Vulcan of the Star Trek TV series, supposedly had a temperament ideally suited for science, because emotion was never supposed to influence his judgment. Many scientific journals insist that papers submitted to them be written in the passive voice (not "We found that. . . " but "It was found that. . . "), thus removing any trace of the author's personality from the paper and making it sound more objective. But Mansfield pointed out that thumos (a Greek word meaning "spiritedness" or "passion") often takes over when scientists perceive a threat to something they hold dear, even if the threat comes with scientific credentials. And many scientists who discover something that goes against the current consensus of scientific opinion have to defend their new ideas passionately against equally vigorous and emotional opposition. In getting emotional, scientists end up acting like ordinary non-scientists, but most good scientists tend to have a certain amount of thumos that motivates them to do the hard work and defending of their ideas that are needed to get a hearing in the competitive world of research.
The night after I arrived at the conference, the sponsoring organization held a banquet which included a buffet dinner, awards, and a three-piece classical music group that could barely be heard above the conversational din in the large hall. During dessert, the chairman got up at the raised podium and announced the name of the after-dinner speaker: William Happer, a well-known physicist. I had heard his name before, and as he began his talk, I remembered where: as author of an article entitled "The Truth About Greenhouse Gases."
By now, the most famous (but by no means the only) greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, CO2. The conventional wisdom among most scientists, policymakers in many countries, and the general public is that (a) humanity is playing Russian roulette with the world's climate by burning so much fossil fuel, which (b) invariably makes CO2, which (c) traps heat and raises average global temperatures, which will (d) lead to all kinds of disasters, from dying polar bears to flooded South Sea islands and perhaps even an epidemic of kidney stones. Therefore, all right-thinking citizens should be aware of their carbon footprints and do everything humanly possible to minimize them, or else go around feeling guilty for not doing so.
Prof. Happer's specialty is the way atoms and molecules absorb and emit radiation, and in the technically sophisticated and convincing talk he gave, he showed that the correlation between rising CO2 levels and global average temperature is more alleged than real. He also showed that the role of CO2 in the global heat balance has been greatly exaggerated, and that there are serious flaws in the way current models treat the details of how the gas absorbs radiation to affect climate. He closed with a quotation from playwright Henrik Ibsen: "I am in revolt against the age-old lie that the majority is always right."
The audience reaction was interesting. They were quiet at first, but when it became clear that Happer was arguing against the main claims of global warming, most people except for a small circle near the speaker resumed talking as though nothing special was going on. There was scattered applause at the end, and then Happer asked for questions.
The first two or three were queries about technical details. Then a tall, rather formidable-looking man rose and mounted the podium. I can't recall all his words, but I know he began by saying his father was one of the founders of the field of cloud physics. He charged Happer with at least two faults: cowardice, for not being willing to attend mainstream climate-change meetings to present his arguments; and ill will, for insulting the intelligence of the climate-change community. In response, Happer pointed at one of the charts in his presentation and said, "The facts are there." His accuser said something else in a tone of voice that I would characterize as non-scientific, and for a moment there I wondered if the after-dinner entertainment was going to be an amateur prizefight. Then the chairman hastily grabbed the microphone and asked the musical trio to start playing. The audience laughed that nervous kind of laugh that means people are relieved that something really awful isn't going to happen after all, and that was the end of that.
Only it wasn't, really. What if Happer is right, and the vast majority of climate scientists, government leaders, and the public (which is not qualified to judge) has turned a molehill of a problem into a mountain that threatens whole economies and spreads fear and misplaced priorities worldwide? A lot of people will end up looking pretty foolish, for one thing, which is why Son of Cloud Physicist got up and said what he said. Of course, one should not make the opposite error of thinking that every crank and holder of a fringe opinion who comes along must be right and the mainstream is always wrong. But Happer's evidence is not the only reason to suspect that the conventional climate-change picture at least has serious flaws. Others such as David Rutledge at Caltech have questioned the conventional wisdom as well, but for different reasons.
Climate change happens so slowly compared to the potential progress of science that I suspect the story will be gradually rewritten as time goes on to prove the dominant powers right whatever actually happens, and it will take a clever historian to tell the real story a century or two hence. In the meantime, those of us who have more important things to worry about than how many centimeters per year the ocean is rising can take some comfort in the chance that William Happer's voice may be heard, and scientists will act a little more like scientists in the matter of examining the technical evidence for global warming.
Harvey Mansfield's article "Science and Non-Science in Liberal Education" appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of The New Atlantis, pp. 22-37.