Monday, January 25, 2016

Personalized Engineering and the Vision of Christopher Alexander

One way to encourage ethical engineering is to talk about moral exemplars—people who have faced a challenging ethical situation and dealt with it in a remarkable and positive way.  The moral exemplar I'd like to introduce to you today is someone you have probably never heard of—Christopher Alexander.  He's not even an engineer in the conventional sense.  But he has devoted his career to a vision that I think engineers ought to know about, at least, and perhaps can apply in hitherto un-thought-of ways.

Alexander is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.  His undergraduate education at Cambridge University was in chemistry and physics, but then he went on to receive the first Ph. D. in architecture awarded by Harvard University. 

I can perhaps describe his unique achievements by setting up a contrast between how architecture is usually done in modern industrial countries, and what Alexander does.  Most buildings that people live in and work in these days in the U. S. are products of a mass-production philosophy whose criteria are efficiency, profit, conformance to building codes, and free-market forces that favor economies of scale over small, individualized efforts.  For example, the town I live in—San Marcos, Texas—has broken out over the past decade in literally dozens of mass-produced apartment complexes.  Some of these are better to look at than others, but one glance at them tells you they were designed by some anonymous committee in Atlanta or Pittsburgh and plopped down here in Central Texas with the main goal of maximizing return on capital invested.  The fact that people spend parts of their lives in these things is almost an afterthought, at least in some cases.

Here is how Alexander would design an apartment building, as he describes in his book The Timeless Way of Building.  First, he gathers not other architects, or building inspectors, or structural engineers, but the people who are actually going to live in the building.  He spends a lot of time with them, and familiarizes them with a special set of phrases that he calls "pattern languages."  A lifetime of study has enabled him to describe the complex of interactions between people and the built environment in a rigorous yet understandable way that brings architectural design within the grasp of the ordinary people who will use the buildings—who, incidentally, were the ones who designed most buildings before architecture became an independent profession. 

Once the future occupants understand how pattern language is used to describe a design, Alexander takes them to the actual building site and asks questions—lots of questions.  Where will the entrance be?  What should we do with these trees?  Which way does the light fall at various times of year?  And in a process that takes days, rather than weeks or months, he stakes out locations on the ground where different structures will rise up organically, in response to a reasoned and thoughtful discussion about the needs and feelings of those who will live in the apartments.  Ideally, this back-and-forth discussion using pattern languages continues during the construction of the building as well, down to details such as ceiling heights and doorknobs. 

The result, according to Alexander, is a building that lives.  Most people have had the experience of visiting a special place that stayed in your memory as (in Alexander's carefully chosen words, none of which does the job completely), alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, and eternal.  For one person, it might be a certain bench in a park—for another, a cathedral.  He claims that his pattern languages can capture those aspects of special good places that make them that way, and his process allows people—ordinary people, not just architects—to express their thoughts in a way that allows more good places to be built:  places that can grow organically like trees even after they are nominally finished. 

What has this got to do with engineering?  Surprisingly, more than you might think.  The Wikipedia article on Alexander says that some of his pattern-language ideas have found applications in computer science and have been applied to software design.  But I think every engineer, not just software engineers, could benefit from a knowledge of Alexander's philosophy and approach.

What Alexander is trying to do is to humanize architecture, reversing a trend that has roots in the industrial revolution of the 1800s.  Modernist architect Le Corbusier's famous description of a house as a "machine for living in" expresses this trend, whose underlying philosophy is behind nearly all modern technological developments.  What is the entrepreneurial dream of today?  To come up with a single concept—Google, Facebook, self-driving cars—that billions of people want and are willing to conform their lives to.  Most of the time, these developments simply ignore or displace existing social and cultural structures and impose a bland, uniform modern appearance everywhere they go—like seeing McDonald's golden arches in Paris, London, and Tokyo. 

I wonder if it is possible to humanize engineering the way Alexander has humanized architecture.  This would involve bucking a million trends and starting small, and probably staying small, too.  Certain attempts of charitable organizations to fit engineering to indigenous needs make efforts in this direction, so it's not like nobody at all is trying.  But by the nature of things, such anti-establishment attempts will not attract a lot of money or attention.  That doesn't mean they are not worth doing.  But it does mean those who try them will probably be misunderstood and lonely, and may not be able to succeed against the incredible pressures to conform to the modernist paradigms. 

Alexander came to my attention through an essay he published in First Things, a journal of religion and public life.  He is a practicing Catholic and in the essay he says that "the sacredness of the physical world—and the potential of the physical world for sacredness—provides a powerful and surprising path towards understanding the existence of God, whatever God may be, as a necessary part of the reality of the universe."  And to those of us who believe in God as the ground of all being, systems which work under the assumption that God doesn't exist are fatally flawed, though the flaws may not become evident right away.  Maybe doing engineering the way Alexander does architecture could teach us something equally profound about engineering.

Sources:  Christopher Alexander's essay "Making the Garden" appeared in the February 2016 issue of First Things, pp. 23-28.  A good introduction to his work is his The Timeless Way of Building (Oxford Univ. Press, 1979).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Earthquake Prediction Goes Commercial — Sort Of

Everybody's now used to seeing weather maps with "past" and "future" buttons on them, allowing you to see what the weather is likely to be a day or two ahead of time.  Did you know there is at least one company that is now publishing a similar map of the world that depicts regions that may shortly experience earthquakes?  QuakeFinder, which calls itself a "humanitarian R&D project" of a parent firm named Stellar Solutions, has a Public Data Center page where they put little red dots in regions that have experienced a change in electromagnetic activity, which (according to QuakeFinder) has been correlated with future earthquakes.  I don't know how much traffic their site attracts, and so far I haven't seen any red dots show up, but I just found out about the site today. 

QuakeFinder bases their predictions on three types of data:  (1) ultra-low-frequency (ULF) magnetic fields, (2) concentration of ions in the air, and (3) emission of infrared radiation as monitored by satellites.  A number of studies over the last few decades have turned up situations in which disturbances in all three quantities have preceded medium to large earthquakes in many locations.  Of course, it's a long stretch between noticing some correlations and using data to make specific predictions about earthquakes.  But at least two organizations—QuakeFinder and another outfit called GeoCosmo—seem to think that there's enough data to start estimating the timing, location, and size of future earthquakes.

I will leave the question of whether QuakeFinder's predictions are accurate aside for the moment, and turn to what might be an even more vexing issue:  once you have a way of predicting earthquakes with some degree of precision, what should you do with it?

A lot depends on the level of false positives (times you say there will be a quake and nothing, or almost nothing, happens) and false negatives (times you miss making a prediction and an earthquake catches you by surprise).  Let's say for the sake of argument that the system does as well at predicting earthquakes as today's weather forecasters do at predicting tornado activity.  I don't have exact statistics on hand at the moment, but my sense is that the great majority of the time when a region is in a tornado watch, some violent weather usually occurs—either a tornado or high winds that can cause as much damage as a small tornado.  And the weather prophets very rarely get caught napping nowadays by failing to predict violent weather, although there are times when a storm becomes a lot worse than forecasts predicted.

At one extreme, it would be the height of moral irresponsibility to know that a major earthquake is going to hit a populated area (where "know" means, say, an 80% chance), and not do anything to let the affected people take precautions.  So the development of a truly reliable earthquake prediction system carries with it the moral obligation to share the information in some form with the general public.

On the other hand, what sorts of precautions should be taken if earthquake prediction becomes a reality?  I can imagine different degrees of preparedness for different groups.  First responders and emergency services would take such predictions most seriously by increasing reserve staffing and supplies and heightening their readiness for a crisis.  People in structures that are known to be especially vulnerable to earthquake damage might consider just staying away for a few days.  Depending on how far in advance a quake could be predicted, this could be a problem. 

It's not clear yet whether earthquake prediction will share with tornado prediction the characteristic that shorter time spans mean more accurate predictions.  If a weather radar shows a tornado two miles west of you heading east at thirty miles an hour, it's pretty easy to say you'll be in big trouble in about four minutes.  It's possible that the best earthquake predictions may never provide time windows narrower than many hours or even days.  Making people stay home or in earthquake-resistant shelters for several days is simply not going to fly, so a lot will depend on how chronologically precise the predictions can be made. 

Another important question is, who's going to pay?  When scientific prediction of weather first became possible in the late 1800s, the economic and military advantages of doing so were so obvious that most national governments established weather bureaus or the equivalent, and for many years government weather prediction was the only show in town.  The observation end of weather forecasting—all those weather stations, weather satellites, and people keeping records for decades—is still expensive, and borne largely by government agencies, but a large number of private weather-forecasting firms now take government data and use it for both public predictions through the media and specialized predictions through commercial transactions.

So far, the model used by QuakeFinder is a non-profit one, although the line dividing a non-profit organization from a commercial operation is not always that easy to draw.  QuakeFinder does apparently have "subscribers" who presumably get customized data.  Weather bureaus and weather forecasting prospered because their forecasts were accurate enough to be valuable, and we can expect earthquake forecasting to be held to a similar standard.  On its website, QuakeFinder claims to have predicted a couple of Peruvian earthquakes, which claim is confirmed indirectly by contemporary news reports citing the involvement of a "California company" (presumably QuakeFinder) in a prediction by a Peruvian scientist of two medium-size earthquakes in Peru in April of 2013. 

But just as two swallows don't make a summer, two predictions don't make a successful prediction system.  Large segments of the scientific community remain unconvinced that earthquake prediction is anything more than a slightly informed guess.  According to some sources (including journalist Alberto Enriquez), one of the biggest wet blankets on earthquake prediction is the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  Apparently back in the 1980s, this agency received extra funding to develop earthquake predictions, and they got burned when their forecast of a major earthquake (again in Peru) failed to materialize in 1981.  Ever since, according to Enriquez, they have been critical of earthquake prediction and have made it hard for researchers to publish in this area or to receive funding.

But other agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are supporting the work of researchers such as Friedemann Freund, who has been mentioned previously in this space as the developer of a theory (confirmed by experiments) that stressed rocks can produce large electric and magnetic fields when mobile charge carriers he calls "p-holes" arise in them.  Freund is one of the founders of GeoCosmo, which focuses on earthquake prediction studies.

The nice thing about private enterprise is that it's self-limiting.  If QuakeFinder or GeoCosmo get it right often enough, people will start paying attention.  Let's hope they can figure out how to do it and get taken seriously enough to save some lives before the next big quake hits.

Sources:  I thank Alberto Enriquez for drawing my attention to recent developments in this field through his website  QuakeFinder's website is at  GeoCosmo's website is geocosmo.orgA news report on June 25, 2013 providing independent confirmation of the Peruvian earthquake prediction attempt is at  I also referred to an article by Julia Rosen carried on the American Association for Advancement of Science Science website, entitled "Can electric signals in Earth's atmosphere predict earthquakes?" at  Friedemann Freund's research in "seismoelectromagnetics" (the electric and magnetic fields produced by stressed rocks) was summarized in this space in "Global Warming or Global Shaking?  A Tale of Two Theories" on Feb. 20, 2007.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Repurposing the Refrigerator

The development of consumer technology is a two-way street.  Manufacturers can't sell a product if nobody wants it, so successful consumer-product firms pay attention to what their customers are using their products for, and adapt new versions to those uses.  A good example of how this can work is on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:  Samsung's Family Hub refrigerator.

As described by the Washington Post's Hayley Tsukayama, the Family Hub features an electronic version of the pictures and sticky notes that many of us cover the front of the refrigerator with.  It's a large touchscreen on the refrigerator door that can display a calendar, notes, photos, and I suppose anything else an Internet-enabled appliance can download.  It interfaces with a Samsung mobile-phone app, so you can easily transfer data from your phone to the front of the refrigerator.  The refrigerator also has cameras inside that let you see how much milk you have left when you're grocery shopping—no need to call home and ask somebody to look in the fridge.  Just call up your refrigerator app and take a look yourself.

How did a device whose original purpose was to preserve food become a communications center?  Will Samsung's innovation catch on?  And what difference does it make in the broader scheme of things? 

In 1996, historians of technology Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch showed how U. S. farmers took an early-twentieth-century technology intended for one purpose—the Model-T automobile—and repurposed it for a variety of other uses, ranging from plowing to running washing machines.  It's pretty safe to say that Henry Ford did not anticipate these alternative uses for his brainchild.  Kline and Pinch say this was a specific example of what is known to historians as the "social construction" of a new technology, in which users become active agents of change rather than just passively accepting what the manufacturer sells them and using it only in the way it was intended.

You could say that the refrigerator as family bulletin board is another socially constructed technology.  My grandmother had a refrigerator that must have dated back to the 1950s.  It had the old-fashioned (and dangerous) mechanical-locking door and a smooth white enameled finish.  I don't recall that she ever affixed notes or other documents to the door, but she died in 1992, just as the rubber-ceramic refrigerator-type magnets were becoming popular, both for the easily opened gasket seal around the door (which kept abandoned refrigerators from becoming deathtraps for small children), and for holding notes and photos to the front of the door.

Almost everyone in a household who is old enough to read is going to open the refrigerator on a regular basis.  So the refrigerator door is a logical place to put notes, photos, and other things that you want everyone to see.  For at least the last twenty or thirty years, the refrigerator-magnet calendar or business card has been a staple of promotional advertising products.  Most homes I have visited, especially if there are children involved, have had a refrigerator door festooned with a kind of graphic history and projection of the family's life and activities.  I suppose some sociologist somewhere has made a study of the kinds of things people put on their refrigerator doors, but the content isn't so important as the fact that it became a sort of custom, like the town crier in old New England.

Then came the stainless-steel refrigerator, first in high-end products, and later spreading to pretty much the entire line of products.  The stainless-steel style is so dominant now that I'm not sure you can find new refrigerators with a painted or enameled steel exterior anymore.  When our fifteen-year-old refrigerator died last year, the stainless-steel models were pretty much the only choice at the hardware store we went to.  If somebody had asked me, I could have told them that stainless steel is non-magnetic, but the full impact of this didn't happen till we'd stripped all the refrigerator magnets off the old unit and tried to put them on the new one.  They stick to the non-stainless sides, but not the front. 

So I welcome Samsung's attempt to bring back the repurposed refrigerator as family communications center, but I'm not sure whether a twenty-inch touchscreen is the right idea.  It all depends on the software.  Unless the Family Hub comes with its own keyboard, typing inputs is going to be a pain, as typing on a vertical surface is not that comfortable.  Of course if you have a Samsung phone, it won't be a problem.  (I don't know about the other kinds.)  A promotional video shows that you can write on the screen with your finger, but that rarely works well for more than a word or two.  And another question involves permanence.  Some of the photos we had on our old fridge were twenty years old and more.  Somehow I doubt that it's going to be easy to keep old images or other memorabilia that long on the Family Hub display.  And what about power failures?  If your emergency numbers are on the display and the display goes blank in an emergency, that's a problem. As for the camera feature, I can see potentials for hacking issues.  In addition to all your other passwords, you'll now need a password for your refrigerator.  But these are things that can be dealt with fairly easily.

The touchscreen-enabled refrigerator shows that Samsung is thinking about how people really use their products, not just how they're supposed to use them, and acting accordingly.  If it catches on, all the other appliance makers will have to come out with their own versions, which of course will not be compatible software-wise with Samsung's.  So if you get a new refrigerator, does that mean you'll have to get a new phone to match?  I hope not.  The Family Hub may be one of those silly things that disappears without a trace.  Or it may be the first sign of something that will become as universal as mobile phones themselves.  Time and the consumer will decide.

Sources:  Hayley Tsukayama's report on the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show was carried in the Washington Post online edition on Jan. 8, 2016 at  The article "Users as Agents of Technological Change:  The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States," by Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch appeared in the Society for the History of Technology journal  Technology & Culture, vol. 37, no. 4 (Oct. 1996), pp. 763-795.

Monday, January 04, 2016

To Blog Followers Not Using Google Accounts: Change in Google Policy

This notice is for all followers of this blog who use Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other "OpenID" providers to follow this blog.  On Jan. 11, Google is going to require you to have a Google account in order to follow this blog.  If you do not have a Google account and wish to continue following this blog, you need to take action before Jan. 11.  Here is the full text of the information I received on Jan. 4:

An update on Google Friend Connect

Posted: December 21, 2015
In 2011, we announced the retirement of Google Friend Connect for all non-Blogger sites. We made an exception for Blogger to give readers an easy way to follow blogs using a variety of accounts. Yet over time, we’ve seen that most people sign into Friend Connect with a Google Account. So, in an effort to streamline, in the next few weeks we’ll be making some changes that will eventually require readers to have a Google Account to sign into Friend Connect and follow blogs.

As part of this plan, starting the week of January 11, we’ll remove the ability for people with Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other OpenId providers to sign in to Google Friend Connect and follow blogs. At the same time, we’ll remove non-Google Account profiles so you may see a decrease in your blog follower count.

We encourage you to tell affected readers (perhaps via a blog post), that if they use a non-Google Account to follow your blog, they need to sign up for a Google Account, and re-follow your blog. With a Google Account, they’ll get blogs added to their Reading List, making it easier for them to see the latest posts and activity of the blogs they follow.

We know how important followers are to all bloggers, but we believe this change will improve the experience for both you and your readers.

Posted by Michael Goddard, Software Engineer

Sandwich Panels and the Dubai Hotel Fire

If you were watching TV on New Year's Eve, amid all the spectacular fireworks displays in cities around the world you might have also seen an unplanned spectacle:  the blaze climbing up one side of the 63-story Address Hotel in Dubai, the largest city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  While the Address Hotel is not the tallest skyscraper in the world (that honor goes to the Burj Khalifa, also in Dubai), it's tall enough to attract global attention as it was enveloped in flames during the night.  Amazingly, no fatalities were reported, although numerous people suffered smoke inhalation or minor injuries while the hotel was being evacuated.  The main reason for the absence of serious casualties was that the fire was confined almost entirely to the "sandwich panels" or cladding on the outside of the building.  Why they could catch fire—and why entire buildings are covered with flammable material in the first place—are topics worth pursuing.

As most people know, modern skyscrapers depend on a hidden steel skeleton for mechanical strength, not on the exterior surfaces, which can be chosen for properties other than their ability to support the building.  At first, high-rise architects stuck to the traditional stone, concrete, and brick for facades, but in the 1950s, they began to experiment with lighter-weight and cheaper materials, such as glass and aluminum. Properly handled and mounted, aluminum makes a fine, long-lasting sheathing material, and so does glass.  Then a couple of decades ago, someone had the idea of sandwiching a few millimeters of plastic—polyethylene or some other heat-softening—between two thin  foil-like claddings of aluminum, making something cheaper and lighter but just as good-looking as solid aluminum.  Thus the sandwich panel was born.

Now, most heat-softening (thermoplastic) plastics can burn very easily, and some attempts were made to introduce fire-retardant materials into the plastic core of sandwich panels to make them fire-resistant.  Apparently, these attempts did not convince U. S. building-code authorities that the new sandwich panels were safe enough to use in high-rises.  A comment on an architect's chatroom I found indicates that these types of panels are prohibited in the U. S. for use on buildings taller than about four stories.  But other countries either had no such laws, or came to realize the potential for disaster too late.

What can happen is this.  If you have a whole building encased in this stuff, and one panel near the bottom happens to catch fire somehow (fireworks seem to be a popular way to do this), you are in big trouble.  Aluminum has a low melting point and melts away from the plastic cladding as soon as the flame reaches it, exposing more plastic to air and letting the fire feed on itself.  Hot air and flames travel upward to the next panel and so on, and in the case of a 63-story building, there's plenty of upward to travel through.  This is what happened, apparently, not only to the Address Hotel, but to several other similarly-clad high-rises in Dubai and elsewhere in the last few years.  The architect-chatroom website where this problem was discussed has numerous pictures of burned-over building exteriors in Dubai, China, and elsewhere—all fires in which sandwich panels played a critical role.

Fortunately, the fires that these panels support tend to stick to the outside, and most of the time, people inside the buildings have time to evacuate before anyone gets killed.  But nobody wants to leave a building under duress while dodging falling pieces of burning plastic and metal on your way out.  And it's very costly to clean up the resulting mess and re-cover the structure with something that won't burn as easily next time.

Both Australia (where such a fire happened in Melbourne in 2014) and the UAE have changed their building codes to require sandwich panels to pass certain fire-retardant tests.  There are two problems with this, however.  One, it's not clear exactly how fire-retardant a panel has to be in order to resist spreading a fire on a tall building.  The only sure way to know is to build such a building and try to set fire to it, and this experiment is beyond the resources of most building-code-writing organizations.  Second, such codes generally apply only to new construction, and are not retroactive.  So anyone who's already built a skyscraper with flammable cladding doesn't have to take the cladding down and replace it with something better.  That is, until it catches fire.  Judging by the fact that the Address Hotel fire was the third such conflagration in Dubai in three years, it may be only a matter of time until the others light up too.

Modeling how fires start and spread is still an inexact science, and it is understandable that pressures from the building industry allowed dangerous sandwich panels to be installed in many places around the world, despite the hazards involved.  But it takes only one or two fires like this to demonstrate that there's a serious problem.  The almost universal tradition of not making building codes retroactive makes sense, because taking stuff out of an existing building to replace it can be more expensive than the original building cost.  Better in that case simply to condemn the thing and tear it down, but that's an extreme measure too. 

So what's the best that can be done in the present situation?  There may be some lower-cost ways to reduce the chances that a fire in existing sandwich panels will spread, possibly by installing some kind of fire-break strip at selected heights.  But that would be pretty speculative and might not work.  Another proposal has been to install fire sprinklers on balconies near sandwich panels, because many of the buildings are high-rise apartments, and I bet there has been more than one numskull who's tried to light a barbecue grill on his balcony and let the fire get out of hand.  If a building has potentially flammable sandwich panels, the owners better make sure that all the fire alarms and protection systems are operational, and conducting regular fire drills might not be a bad idea either.  But owners will be reluctant to advertise the fact that their building is a giant firework waiting for someone to light the fuse.

We can also be thankful that U. S. building codes flat-out prohibit the use of sandwich panels in high-rise structures.  Yes, it forces builders to use more expensive materials, and drives the cost up compared to construction costs in other countries.  But we've had enough towering infernos in this country to last us a long time, and we don't need any more.

Sources:  I referred to a Reuters report by Andrew Torchia carried on Jan. 2, 2016 on the Yahoo News website  The architect's chatroom with a comment about the U. S. prohibition of sandwich panels and photos of similar fires in other countries is at  A report of a sandwich-panel-fueled fire in a Melbourne building in 2014 appeared on the Australian website on Apr. 28, 2015.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on sandwich panels.