Monday, August 25, 2014

Cops and Cameras

When Michael Brown was shot and killed a little after noon on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson, several eyewitnesses saw what happened.  Autopsy results have been released that reveal Brown was shot six times.  Word that Brown was unarmed at the time spread fast and for several days, Ferguson was the scene of angry protests by day and unrest by night, to which police responded with tear gas and curfews.  On August 18, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called in the state's national guard troops, which were withdrawn after three days of increasing calm.  But tensions are still high, and depending on who you ask, you will hear either that Officer Wilson was defending himself against a potentially deadly physical assault by Brown, or that Brown was guilty of nothing more than being black and walking down the street when an out-of-control white cop killed him.

Would a body-mounted video camera on Wilson's chest have made this situation any better?  More generally, should cops carry body-mounted video cameras and use them any time they're dealing with the public?

Ironically, the Ferguson police department had reportedly bought some body-worn cameras, but had not yet deployed them at the time of the shooting.  For police, using a body-mounted camera is not just a simple matter of strapping one more piece of gear onto your shirt.  Some states have laws about recording video without a private person's permission.  And video cameras generate beaucoup quantities of data that have to be dealt with somehow, although various services offer cloud-based solutions to this particular problem.  Finally, the cameras do cost something, but current prices average in the $350 range, about what a service revolver costs.  And unlike revolvers, the price-performance ratio of video cameras continues to fall, which is why they're showing up in more and more places.

The price of video recording has been falling ever since May 22, 1958, when the first color video recording of a live event was made.   On that day, President Eisenhower was scheduled to make a brief address at the new NBC color television studios in Washington, DC.  RCA president David Sarnoff, ever alert to the potential for making technical history, arranged for the event to be recorded by the network's new color video recording system.  The signals were transmitted over the NBC network to Burbank, California, where an experimental magnetic-tape video recorder captured the half-hour ceremony.  Fifty-six years later, what it took a roomful of equipment and dozens of engineers to do then can now be done by one little box strapped to an officer's chest.  But does the fact that we can do such a thing mean that we must do it?

Several news reports have cited the experience of the police force in Rialto, California, where all police officers have been wearing pager-size body cameras for more than a year.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, in the year since the cameras were deployed, the use of force by officers went down 60% and complaints by citizens about police misbehavior declined 88%. 

One possible cause for these remarkable improvements is what might be termed the video-placebo effect.  Back in the days when video equipment was relatively expensive, retail stores often bought cheap imitation cameras that looked like real ones but were just dummies—empty boxes.  But the sight of them deterred crime about as well as real ones did.  Simply publicizing the fact that your officers all wear cameras will change the psychology of both the officers and the people they deal with, even if the video evidence isn't used. 

There is, of course, the opposite effect to consider.  Sometimes the presence of cameras creates trouble where it wouldn't otherwise exist.  Most people are familiar with the fact that protesters are attracted to news cameras like flies to honey.  But that sort of thing happens only when publicity is the main goal.  For true criminals, publicity is the last thing they want.  So it is likely that both citizens and cops will act better if body-mounted cameras are used.

The wide availability of video recordings of police actions can tempt users to give in to a concept summarized by the phrase "the camera cannot lie."  While it is true that the camera cannot lie, it can't tell the truth, either.  Truth is a property of the immaterial things called propositions, and hardware and photographs aren't propositions.  They can provide evidence for the truth of propositions, but the evidence must be evaluated and interpreted by fallible human beings.  So if body cameras become as standard a piece of police gear as a badge, lawyers and others concerned with the validity of evidence need to remember the idea that video evidence is like any other kind of evidence, and there's nothing magical or automatically dispute-resolving about it.

Sure, eyewitness accounts of Michael Brown's shooting differed.  That is the nature of eyewitness accounts.  But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if only Officer Williams had used a body-mounted camera, that everyone could have just watched the video and gone away in total agreement as to what happened and why.  Cameras are helpful in finding out the facts—no doubt about that.  I'm glad that engineering progress has made something that used to be affordable only by million-dollar organizations cheap enough to benefit law enforcement personnel all over the world. 

But like any other type of evidence, video can be misused.  And the procedures for selecting and making such recordings available to both prosecution and defense need to be worked out so that justice is truly served by this new technology.

Sources:  I have consulted reports on the Michael Brown shooting carried by NBC News at, and reports on law-enforcement video cameras carried by Mother Jones at and the Wall Street Journal at  A description of the unrest following the incident was carried by the Daily Telegraph (UK) at
I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on "Shooting of Michael Brown."  For nerds interested in the world's oldest color videorecording, it is viewable at, and a description of how it was recovered from old tapes and restored is at

Note Regarding Ads:  A few weeks ago, I noted that I was going to experiment with monetization on this blog.  After going through the application process, it was approved, and this morning (Monday 8/25) ads will begin to appear below the latest blog.  I have no control over which ad Google chooses to place in this space.  I am also prohibited from clicking on the ad to see what it might be about, a prohibition I have already violated once out of shock, more or less. (Maybe they will change the ad eventually, but the one I saw this morning showed a gal in a short white dress.  It would not be my first choice for an ad, shall we say.)  So the whole venture of experimenting with ads may come to an abrupt conclusion shortly.  Stay tuned, please, and in the meantime I will investigate the possibility of exercising some control over what sort of ads appear in this space.  But it may be a choice of simply any ad they pick, or no ads at all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Survivor" On Mars: Poor Ratings Could Be Deadly

Reality shows on TV claim to present life as it happens.  Never mind that the kind of life that happens on these shows is something that most of us would pay money to avoid:  getting tossed into a wilderness with next to nothing to live on, or being expelled from the show altogether by a vote of your peers.  But reality shows continue in various forms to be one of the more popular TV genres.

A Dutch nonprofit startup called Mars One is planning a reality show that is literally out of this world.  The organization's plan is to send four astronauts—two men and two women—to Mars by 2025, that is, eleven years from now.  And they plan for their main source of revenue to be fees charged by the outfit for continuous media coverage of the entire venture. 

Did I say anything about bringing the astronauts back?  No, and neither does Mars One.  From the get-go, the organization's plan has been to get their stars to Mars, and after that, well, they knew what they were getting into, didn't they?  And there's always phone calls—with a seven-minute one-way delay.  Despite this, er, disadvantage, about 200,000 people have reportedly expressed interest in being selected for the first trip.  As of last May, Mars One had culled the list of prospects down to about 700 lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) people.  Eventually it will have to be cut down to a few dozen or so at most who will undergo the planned seven or eight years of training, which has to commence no later than 2016 for the project to keep on schedule for the launch in 2024 (it will take over a year to get there). 

The Mars One website has that characteristically Dutch tone of modesty combined with a tolerance for things that other cultures consider beyond the pale.  It may be no coincidence that the same country harboring Mars One is also where euthanasia has made its biggest advances.  And as far as living on earth is concerned, the Mars One trip would be just a long-drawn-out, televised, technologically implemented end to your earthly existence. 

In a way, there's nothing new about Mars One's invitation to become famous and historical at the price of never being on earth again.  In wars and disasters, individuals have at various times chosen to throw away their lives with a vanishingly small chance of survival, in order to achieve a greater good.  Japanese fighter pilots flew suicide missions in the closing days of World War II.  Arland D. Williams, Jr., one of only six survivors of a plane that crashed into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982, repeatedly handed lifelines to the other survivors, only to drown when the plane's wing he was standing on sank.  But rightly or wrongly, these people were sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

What is the comparable cause that Mars One is proposing to achieve, at the price of its passengers' lives?  Whatever it is, 200,000 people around the world at least considered it worthwhile enough to apply. 

National glory doesn't seem to be much of a motive.  Mars One is probably the most extreme existing example of the turn toward private space ventures that began about a decade ago.  When space exploration was something so difficult that only governments could afford it, those who volunteered and went through the arduous training and took great risks—and those who lost their lives, too—had the satisfaction of knowing that their actions were on the behalf of the United States, or the USSR, or (more lately) the People's Republic of China.  During the space race of the 1960s, being an astronaut was a way of fighting the Cold War by other means.  But the Mars One venture has a deliberately international tone to it, and I suspect that most of their applicants consider themselves mainly citizens of the world, rather than of the particular country where they happened to be born.

What if Mars One barely manages to get their first folks on Mars and then runs out of money?  Even the most debauched reality-TV shows up to now have not proposed to show us live scenes of slow starvation, but that's what we'd be dealing with.  What would the dying colonists be thinking? 

There are precedents for this sort of thing, after all.  We can look at the record left behind of a man who knowingly ventured on a risky expedition that turned out badly:  Robert Falcon Scott.  In 1912, his team was the second in history to reach the South Pole, after Roald Amundsen.  A few weeks later, after his team consumed the last of their provisions, Scott was the last of his five-person party to die of cold and starvation.  Knowing what was coming, he left a "Message to the Public" which reads in part: "We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence. . . . Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman."  He lived and died an Englishman to the last, and expressed his dying thoughts in prose that has stood the test of time.

If Mars One ever gets off the ground, the adventure may end in tragedy—suddenly, with no time for last words or regrets, or slowly, allowing its victims to reflect on their fate as Scott did in his last letters.  Maybe in the applicant pool of 700 there are one or two Robert F. Scotts whose grasp of reality, and what the human spirit is capable of, would be equal to a supreme crisis like the one Scott faced.  But the track record of reality TV is not promising in this regard.  

Sources:  The Mars One website is  I referred to reports on their activities at (posted April 13, 2014) and a CNN report at  I also consulted Wikipedia articles on reality television and Ronald Falcon Scott.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dodging Solar Bullets

Massive blackouts—pipeline explosions—whole regions of Europe or North America plunged into the nineteenth century, but without even the rudiments of that century's technology.  Elevators that don't elevate, ventilators that don't ventilate, gas pumps that don't pump, hospitals that turn into charnel houses.  Entire cities evacuated and their populations dying on their frantic attempts to escape to nowhere.

No, this isn't a movie review of the latest mega-disaster flick.  It is a fairly realistic scenario of what could have happened on July 23, 2012, if a certain cluster of sunspots had been facing directly toward the earth, rather than pointing out away from us toward a space probe called STEREO A.  As it happened, STEREO A had a front-row seat at a performance that engineers hope we will never witness here—but one that could happen any time.

What happened that day was not just one, but two coronal mass ejections (CMEs).  Often associated with, but distinct from, the brilliant solar flares that arc above the sun's surface every now and then, coronal mass ejections contain the energy of millions of nuclear bombs and send tons of charged particles flying out into space.  Entangled with the particles are spaghetti-plates full of tangled magnetic field lines, and the magnetic fields are what can damage our electrical and mechanical infrastructure. 

When a CME encounters the earth's magnetic field, the normally fairly stable domestic field jumps around like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.  And as every electrical engineer knows, changing magnetic fields near conductors induce voltages and currents in those conductors.  Substitute "power lines" and "pipelines" for "conductors" and you begin to see the problem. 

While these structures are protected against the normal kinds of mishaps that can befall them—lightning in the case of power lines, breaks in the case of pipelines—relatively few such installations are also protected against the unique sort of stresses that a record-breaking geomagnetic storm can induce.  And geomagnetic storms, along with brilliant auroras near the polar regions, are what happens when a large CME hits the earth. 

The last major geomagnetic storm that did considerable damage occurred in 2003, knocking out a series of electric-grid transformers in Sweden.  Utility operators usually have on hand one or two spare transmission transformers­—the big boxes in substations that cost upwards of millions of dollars each—but not a dozen.  And even if they did, hauling those multi-ton pieces of gear around the country to replace ones burned out by a geomagnetic storm is not the light task of a few hours' time.  Multiply this actual event by a factor of two or ten or twenty, and you can see how bad things could get.

What can be done from an engineering point of view to protect infrastructure assets from a large geomagnetic storm?  We will concentrate on the protection of the electric grid, since its loss would be by far more immediately consequential than the loss of pipelines.

If grid operators are given enough warning, they can call for a pre-emptive voluntary blackout that disconnects vulnerable transformers from the long lines that will pick up the high currents and voltages that would otherwise cause damage.  The problem with this is, nobody wants to be the one to decide to pull the switch, especially if the storm turns out to be less severe than expected.  Another problem is that there is currently no good way to predict the exact effects of a given geomagnetic storm on a particular part of the grid.  So the safe thing to do would be to shut down the whole system for the duration of the storm, which usually lasts only a few hours.  But a region-wide blackout lasting several hours is a serious disruption of its own, and few grid operators are currently willing to do such a thing based on only the fuzzy and general forecasts of geomagnetic storms that are presently available.

Another alternative is to install special protective gear designed to bypass the large energy generated in power grids by geomagnetic storms.  This would allow the grid to keep working right through the storm, but has the disadvantage of costing millions of dollars and not doing a blessed thing until the storm hits.  This reminds me of those vending machines you used to see at airports where you could buy $50,000 of life insurance for something like a quarter, valid only during your upcoming flight.  I suppose somebody may have collected on one of those policies, but I doubt it.  Still, this would be the safest course, all things considered.

Healthy societies have institutions that look ahead to unlikely eventualities, so that when they happen, as sooner or later they surely will, the society rolls through the crisis while maybe sustaining some damage, but otherwise stays intact.  The closest we have come in the U. S. to a crisis like the one a geomagnetic storm might cause was Hurricane Katrina, the one that devastated New Orleans in 2005.  Sad to say, New Orleans was grossly unprepared for Katrina.  Its infrastructure of dikes and canals had been neglected for decades, despite warnings that if something like Katrina hit, large parts of the city would be underwater, and they were.  Over 1,800 people died in a disaster that was, fortunately, of limited geographic extent.  Multiply Katrina by ten or twenty times the area, and you can begin to see what a perfect geomagnetic storm might do.

In a recent issue of National Review, Christopher DeMuth points out that past generations of U. S. citizens allowed the federal government to go into debt, but always for a reason that was forward-looking:  to win a war, for example, or to finance infrastructure improvements such as canals, railroads, and interstate highways.  By contrast, today we are continually warned of our crumbling infrastructure, but the massive debt we are incurring is going mainly for payments to persons—consumption, in other words, not investment for the future. 

The amount of money it would take to improve geomagnetic-storm forecasting and power-grid protection to the point that we could cross a geomagnetic-storm disaster off our list of things to worry about, is not large.  Whether public or private funds, or a combination, should pay for it is not the question.  The question is whether society still has enough foresight to avoid needless disasters—or whether we have to experience them first before we do anything about them.

Sources:  A good brief description of the nearly-disastrous CME event of July 23, 2012 was carried online by IEEE Spectrum at  The technical paper on which the report was based is Liu, Y. D. et al. "Observations of an extreme storm in interplanetary space caused by successive coronal mass ejections." Nature Communications 5:3481 (doi: 10.1038/ncomms4481) (2014).  The problem has not gone entirely unnoticed by government officials, as the threat evaluation report on geomagnetic storms at the U. S. Department of Homeland Security found at shows.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on coronal mass ejections, solar rotation, and Hurricane Katrina.  Christopher DeMuth's article "Our Democratic Debt" appeared on pp. 28-34 of the July 21, 2014 issue of National Review.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Israel's Iron Dome and the Ethics of War

Just before I wrote this, I learned that a cease-fire negotiated last Friday between Israel and Hamas collapsed after less than two hours.  For the last few weeks, the Gaza-based Hamas organization has been shooting Grad-type rockets at Israel, and Israel has lately been responding both with aerial attacks and ground action in Gaza itself.  By many reports, the damage done by the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel would be much worse if it were not for Israel's air-defense system called Iron Dome.  According to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Iron Dome succeeds in intercepting about 80% of rockets that come within its zone of protection, and is one reason why civilian casualties in Israel from the rocket attacks have been so low. 

The ethics of the Israeli-Hamas conflict is, shall we say, outside the scope of this blog.  Rather, I would like to look at the ethics of war as it concerns engineers, with Iron Dome as a case in point.  From the viewpoint of a student about to graduate from engineering school, should you consider job offers from military contractors?  And if not, why not?  Just to make it interesting, let's say you're graduating from the Technion, Israel's premier technology university.  What choices do you face regarding the military and working for military contractors?

As many people know, there is universal conscription in Israel.  Theoretically, all men over the age of 18 serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) for three years (two for women).  It's not as universal as it sounds:  according to Wikipedia, about half of those drafted manage to avoid serving for various reasons having to do with religious exemptions, being members of exempted communities, or even by being a conscientious objector.  To avoid service, a conscientious objector (CO) has to have a principled opposition to all war and conflict, not just particular conflicts that the IDF is engaged in.  And this is not an easy path to tread:  one study of applicants for CO status in Israel from around 2000 found that only about ten percent of applicants were granted the exemption.

So, say you've served your three years in the IDF and you now want to have nothing to do with the military ever again.  There's plenty of job opportunities in technical fields in Israel for non-defense work.  You could work for Given Imaging, for example.  They're a medical-device outfit that has pioneered the development of capsule endoscopy:  swallowable video cameras, to be specific.  A cousin of mine took one of these as a part of an investigation of why he was having acid reflux.  I don't think the results wound up on YouTube, but if there had been anything serious wrong, the pictures would have been courtesy Given Imaging, or maybe one of their imitators.

But wait—you look into the background of Given Imaging, and you find that it's actually a spinoff from a company that specializes in commercializing military technology.  Look hard enough, and you find that the same organization that makes Iron Dome also spun off the medical firm Given Imaging.  Originally called the Science Corps at Israel's founding in 1948, the government-funded military R&D organization was renamed Rafael in 1958, and restructured as a profit-making, though still government-owned, company in 2002, now known as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.  As anyone striving for total purity in association or support will find, if you trace money, influence, or history back far enough, sooner or later you'll find something you don't like.

So let's take the opposite view:  say your sister was one of the few Israeli civilians killed by a Grad rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza, and you'd like to do what you can to prevent it from happening again.  If you had joined Rafael back in 2007, you could have gotten in on the ground floor of the development of Iron Dome.  The idea of a rocket defense system occurred to the IDF long before then, but American advisers looked at the relatively small Rafael organization in the relatively small country of Israel and told the Israelis not to waste their time, that such an idea was "doomed to fail."  Antimissile defense systems developed by the U. S. have a checkered past, to be sure, and the only one that seemed to have had a major effect on global politics—Star Wars in the 1980s—was never actually deployed fully.  When President Reagan just threatened to build it, it scared the socks off the USSR.  And the mere threat of making an enemy's weapons useless is often a good strategic weapon of its own.

But the threats Israel was experiencing in recent years were not theoretical.  Grad rockets were originally developed by the USSR in the 1960s as dumb weapons whose inaccuracy (they are less aimable than even conventional gun-fired shells) is intended to be overcome by sheer numbers.  Nobody knows where a Grad rocket will fall, including those who fire them.  These types of rockets make a good target for a sophisticated radar-guided defense system like Iron Dome, whose optical-tracking missiles can home in on a target and explode it before it reaches the ground.  Of course, the resulting debris don't just go away—even after a successful interception, you will have pieces of hot scrap metal falling to the ground, which can be inconvenient, to say the least.  But what you won't have is 6 to 22 kg (14 to 50 pounds) of high explosive propelling shrapnel all around your back yard, which is what a Grad rocket can do if it lands and explodes.

The choice of an engineering career is always an interesting one, but for Israeli engineering graduates these days, it must be especially so.   There is room in the discipline of engineering for those who believe wholeheartedly in war, for those who oppose war with every fiber of their being, and for those who may not want to work on systems that actually kill people, but who want to defend innocent lives against attacks.  Iron Dome looks like a lifesaver to me, and whatever your beliefs about the Israel-Hamas conflict in general, I think most engineers would agree that the system is a fine piece of work.

Sources:  I referred to Wikipedia articles with the following titles:  Iron Dome, Conscription in Israel, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Hamas.  The report on the short-lived ceasefire was carried online by CNN at