Monday, June 27, 2016

Take the Moral Limits Test

Every once in a great while I raise a philosophical issue in this space.  Most people who have tried teaching engineering ethics know that a little philosophy goes a long way, at least with undergraduates.  The subject has a reputation of being dry, abstract, and far removed from everyday considerations.  And another count against it is that it never seems to go anywhere—philosophers today argue about some of the same things that Plato and his students argued about in the garden called the Akademeia near Athens around 400 B. C. 

Nevertheless, I find that philosophers can clarify and put names to things that most of us deal with a lot, but have trouble thinking clearly about.  One such philosopher I came across lately is George Parkin Grant, and a question he asks in his book Philosophy in the Mass Age is one I'd like to raise here.

Writing in 1960, Grant was worried about many of the same things that bother us today:  whether the products and effects of our technological smarts will carry us over the brink to extinction, for example.  Back then, the big concern was nuclear war between the old USSR and the United States.  Nowadays it's climate change, but while the subject of the fear is different, the anxieties are similar. 

Grant saw two worldviews or states of mind that were locked in a complex struggle—a struggle that continues today.  He stated the terms of the struggle succinctly in this way:  "To put this issue simply:  are we truly and finally responsible for shaping what happens in the world, or do we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible, so that the purpose of our lives is to discover and serve that order?" 

If we are truly in charge—if there's no higher authority or source of guidance than our own wits and ability to work together—then you are likely to take a different view of the world and a different approach to life, than if you think otherwise.  Later in the book, he poses a question, which I'm calling the Moral Limits Test.  It's not a question to be answered lightly or quickly.  But your answer to it could tell you something about yourself and where you stand on the issue that Grant raised in the quotation above.

The question is this: "Is there anything that we should never under any circumstances do to another human being?"

Now we can get all tangled up in details—"Define 'human being,'" you might say, or "What if the circumstances are unlikely and extreme, such as whether torturing one person will save the lives of millions?"  Let's not get too technical here.  The intent of the question is to probe your own beliefs about one's ultimate responsibilities to other humans, and whether there is some rock-bottom limit below which it is always forbidden to go.  Not knowing what you'll answer, I'll take each of the two possible responses in turn.

Let's say you answer in the negative.  No, you say, I can't think of anything I would absolutely rule out.  You may argue that at any rate, they've all been tried over the bloody course of history, and you would not be far from the truth there.  From genocides authorized by religious prophecies to the Nazi death camps, man's inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds.  That doesn't make these acts right, of course, but despite all the terrible things that have been done, the species has survived.  Other things being equal, you wouldn't choose to torment two-year-olds with hot branding irons, but who knows what urgent technical or societal need will come up in the future? 

I realize that the question is a little bit like trying to find out how many bigots there are in a population by sending out a survey that asks, "Are you a bigot?  Answer yes or no."  Even if you are, you don't want to admit it.  So there's a strong social pressure to agree that yes, there must be something that we shouldn't do to other people, even though you may not be able to think of anything at the moment.  The same bloody history I referred to a minute ago tells me, though, that a lot of people have answered that question to themselves in the negative, at least judging by their heinous behavior.

Now let's say you honestly answered yes—there are things we should never under any circumstances do to someone else.  You may even be able to think of a few—running death camps, or keeping slaves, or performing abortions, for example.  Whatever your example, or even if you can't think of one, by saying "yes" to that question, Grant believes you have admitted that, in his words, "we live in an order for which we are not ultimately responsible."  And in his view, this means that God has entered the picture:  ". . . the idea of limit is unavoidably the idea of God," as he puts it.

This is a problem for modern people, he admits, because the whole thrust of civilization since the scientific and industrial revolutions has been to pretend there are no limits, and to use nature as raw material for making the Earth into a place that satisfies our desires.  One of the paradoxes of modern life is that in trying to make ourselves happy, we often cause tremendous distress and harm to others, which is really the problem of evil.  And we're not going to solve that one in a thousand-word blog. 

But the point I would like to leave you with is this:  if you really think there are some things that are "categorically wrong"—forbidden to do under any circumstances—then Grant thinks you have admitted that there is something, or Someone, higher than just humankind.  And that limitation, that absolute of the moral realm, did not come from us, but from outside. 

Working out the implications of that thought will be left as an exercise for the reader, as annoying textbooks sometimes say.  But the implications are not trivial, and if you are honest with yourself, you may find out something about yourself and your beliefs that you had not suspected.

Sources:  George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) was a Canadian philosopher, who according to the Wikipedia article on him was heavily influenced in his early work by G. W. F. Hegel.  (We don't talk about Hegel in this blog, as I don't want to lose the readers I have.)  The quotations from his book Philosophy in the Mass Age (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1960) are taken from p. 51 ("To put this issue. . ."), p. 91 ("Is there anything. . ."), and p. 93 (". . . the idea of limit . . .").  I learned about Grant from comments by Ken Myers, who produces the admirable Mars Hill Audio Journal, a periodic interview series on Christianity and culture (

Monday, June 20, 2016

Injecting Some Sense Into Fracking Regulation

The July issue of Scientific American carried the best summary of the fracking-earthquake controversy I have seen so far.  "Drilling For Earthquakes" by Anna Kuchment reviews the fracking (hydraulic fracturing), the associated water injection, the earthquakes, the science, and government reactions to the problem.  In particular, the article shows the very different approaches the states of Texas and Oklahoma have taken to the problem.  And I regret to say it doesn't make my native state of Texas look good by comparison.  But first, the basics.

As I wrote in this space in 2013, water-injection wells to dispose of the brackish water that comes up sometimes along with oil and gas are nothing new.  But the combination of fracking to extract fossil fuels from previously inaccessible formations, horizontal drilling to gain wider access to those formations, and the boom of widespread deployment of these techniques that has gone on in the last six or eight years, have led to a huge increase in the volume of water injected back deep underground.  During 2014, in Texas a gallon of water was injected back into the ground for every 100 or so cubic feet of shale gas extracted.  That may not sound like much, but Texas produced about 4 trillion (4,000,000,000,000) cubic feet of shale gas that year.  Leave off two zeroes and that's how many gallons of water were injected back into the ground.  And that ratio probably holds true more or less for the rest of the country as well.

Wastewater injection from fracking doesn't always cause earthquakes.  North Dakota has had a lot of fracking and wastewater injection too, but hardly any earthquakes.  On the other hand, Oklahoma, a place that was hardly famous for earthquakes before 2005, had 581 temblors of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2014.  Its most severe one recently happened in November 2011, when a 5.6-magnitude quake wrecked more than a dozen houses and injured a couple of people.  Less severe but just as widespread quakes have been happening in North Texas, where the Barnett Shale has been exploited for natural gas in a big way, and injection wells are operating there too.

Because of the huge volumes of wastewater to deal with, oil and gas producers don't have too many options that won't make their operations too expensive to carry out.  Treating the water to extract the salt and other minerals would mean distilling it, a hugely costly process that would turn them all into water-purification plants with an unprofitable sideline of making oil and gas as a byproduct.  So that's not an option.  Trucking it to a place where injecting it wouldn't cause earthquakes would be expensive, even if we knew of a nearby place where injecting it wouldn't cause earthquakes.  And just throwing it out on the ground, which used to be a common practice in the bad old days before 1950 or so, would cause huge amounts of waterway pollution because of the salts, radioactivity, and other nasty stuff that comes up with the water.  So going to the expense of drilling wells typically much deeper than the producing ones and injecting the wastewater downhole at tremendous pressures is the only thing that producers can typically do with it.

The trouble is, rocks are porous—that's the only way you can inject water into them in the first place.  So that high-pressure water starts to move, and seeps toward faults, which are just big cracks between intact blocks of rock.  Some faults are under shear stress.  To envision shear stress, think of holding two old-fashioned chalkboard erasers together face to face and rubbing them back and forth across each other.  It's shear stress you put on them that makes them slide.  If you mash the erasers together perpendicularly, putting them under compressive stress, it's a lot harder to get them to move with shear stress.  So a fault that is under shear stress won't slip and cause an earthquake as long as the compressive stress is great enough.

Then along comes your water injection at high pressure.  It seeps through the pores to the cracks and provides an opposing pressure that can counteract the compressive stress that's keeping the fault from slipping.  We're not talking lubrication here, but large opposing mechanical forces.  I'm sure the technical details involve stress tensors and the whole nine yards of solid mechanics, but the basic picture is simple.  When the fluid pressure exceeds a certain threshold, that fault is going to let go, and you've got an earthquake.  People have even done experiments in the field to figure out exactly how much stress makes the faults slip, and there is a definite threshold, just as theory predicts.

Both from mechanical analyses and statistical studies, as well as abundant seismological data correlating particular regions of earthquake activity with particular injection-well activity, by now it is clear to all but the most biased observers that, generally speaking, the injection-well activity has caused the increase in earthquakes in both Texas and Oklahoma.  The U. S. Geological Survey, which has been issuing long-range earthquake predictions by region for some time now for the convenience of structural engineers, insurance companies, and other interested parties, has had to revise its forecasts for Oklahoma and Texas sharply upward in the last few years.  A contour map of earthquake likelihood for Oklahoma now looks like an archery target with Oklahoma City in the bullseye.  And the scientific literature abounds with studies showing details of the correlation.

Oklahoma has a long tradition of assertive state government, dating back to the 1930s when it passed laws regulating things like the price of ice.  And they have now continued that tradition by shutting down individual wells since 2015 and regulating the volume of wastewater that can be injected.  On the other hand, the Texas agency in charge of oil and gas regulation (for historical reasons, it's called the Texas Railroad Commission) still has not been able to bring itself to admit that any earthquakes have been triggered by water injection associated with fossil-fuel production.  But recently the Commission asserted its right to shut down wells if it wants to.  So far, though, it hasn't wanted to.

To some degree, all this is water under the bridge, or well, as the case may be.  Oil and gas markets are glutted right now, and the consensus is that the big fracking boom is over, at least in Texas and Oklahoma.  But all that injected water is still down there, slowly diffusing, and some geologists estimate that the effects of water injection on earthquakes can last as long as twenty years.  So in that sense, we may be dealing with the aftershocks of the fracking boom for some time.

Sources:  Anna Kuchment's article "Drilling for Earthquakes" appeared in the July 2016 print issue of Scientific American, pp. 46-53.  I also referred to a U. S. Department of Energy table of shale-gas production available at  I blogged on earthquakes and fracking most recently on Dec. 30, 2013.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tesla's Growing Pains: The Wheel-Falling-Off Incident

First, the known facts.  On Sunday, Apr. 24 of this year, Pete Cordaro had driven his Tesla Model S about 73,000 miles, making it one of the higher-mileage electric vehicles on the road.  The Model S is an all-electric vehicle introduced by Tesla in 2012, and currently retails for about $70,000.  While driving slowly on a back road in Pennsylvania looking for mushrooms, he hit a pothole and heard a "snap."  The left front hub had separated from the control arm of the suspension system.  In simple turns, the front driver's side wheel fell off.

According to a New York Times report of the story, Tesla at first refused to pay for the repair, saying it wasn't covered under warranty.  When Mr. Cordaro complained, they picked up some of the tab and asked him to sign an agreement that included nondisclosure language.  Exactly what he wasn't supposed to disclose is not clear.  The Times report said the language, strictly interpreted, would have prevented Mr. Cordaro from informing the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the incident.  But Tesla denies this, saying the only reason for what they called a "goodwill agreement" was simply to keep their beyond-the-call-of-duty good deed from resulting in legal action against them.  One can imagine lots of other customers with out-of-warranty complaints suing Tesla and saying, "Hey, you did it for him, now you gotta do it for me." 

The Times article also reports that there have been numerous other complaints about Tesla suspension problems on the NHSTA website.  But the pro-electric-vehicle website Inside EVs reports that most of these complaints are suspiciously similar, and may have been posted by one disgruntled Tesla owner who has adopted multiple anonymous names.  The Inside EVs report concludes that the main problem here is not defective suspensions, but an amateurish publicity department at Tesla which has allowed a small, isolated incident to get more public exposure and attention than perhaps it deserved.

Fortunately, no one was hurt when Mr. Cordaro's wheel came loose.  If he has really been driving his Tesla for 73,000 miles on icy, salty Pennsylvania roads, his car has probably experienced more rust than you are likely to encounter anywhere in California, the birthplace of the vehicle.  And the fact that this is probably the only such incident is only one aspect of a truly impressive thing that Tesla is trying to do:  become a major player in the U. S. automotive industry beginning from scratch.  It's understandable that they will make a few fumbles on the way.

From literally dozens of U. S. automakers that tried to make a go of it in the early days of the automotive industry, the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—were the only ones who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and continued to flourish.  The challenges of breaking into an industry whose foundations go back more than a century is enormous.  It's made harder by the fact that many states have laws that prevent automakers from selling directly to consumers, which is what Tesla wants to do.

Why is that?  The roots of the problem lie in the way early automakers set up their distribution systems.  Rather than pay for the expense of sales facilities in thousands of cities and towns, the Big Three sold franchises to private investors who then owned the car-sales franchise for that make in their towns.  Initially, the franchise deals were stacked in favor of the auto manufacturers.  During slow times, the franchisees were committed to buy a fixed quota of cars from the makers, even if they couldn't sell any. 

In reaction, the franchise owners joined together and got state laws passed that protected their franchise status.  In particular, these laws made sure cars were sold only through locally-owned franchises, not directly by auto makers, who would otherwise be competing with their franchisees.

Like the similarly-arranged Coca-Cola franchises, these arrangements have enriched franchise owners, sometimes for generation after generation dating back to the 1930s.  But Tesla, the new kid on the block, doesn't want to do business that way.  Franchises add a middleman that Tesla wants to bypass.  And Tesla argues that because electric vehicles represent a threat to gasoline-powered vehicles, current car-franchise owners would have a conflict of interest in selling both kinds of cars.

Despite all these historical handicaps, Tesla is now legitimately regarded as a major automaker, having sold its 100,000th vehicle late last year.  On a recent trip to the East Coast, I encountered a Tesla charging station outside a motel in Lexington, Virginia, along I-81.  It was a set of half a dozen or so vaguely gas-pump-shaped things, but instead of a hose there was a cable.  I had the temerity to unhook one from its stand and look into the end.  There were two coaxial-looking connectors about an inch apart, and some smaller connectors at the bottom.  According to a Wikipedia article on the "supercharging" stations, they can supply up to 135 kW during a 15 to 30-minute charge cycle that will give a Model S another 180 miles or so of charge.  If you assume those cables won't handle more than 30 amps or so, they must run a voltage of several kV and down-convert it in the car to the couple of hundred volts or so that the main battery takes.  If I am wrong on these estimates, I will be glad to be corrected by someone who knows more about the charging stations than I do.

Anyway, the challenge of designing and making a new type of car from scratch, and not only doing that but building the infrastructure to sell, service, and supply charging for them, is tremendous.  Tesla had federal government help to the tune of a $400 million loan early on, which is not something every company gets, but it's reportedly been paid back and the company appears to be doing well now on its own.

All the same, I suspect Tesla's mechanical engineers will be investing in some rapid-corrosion testing equipment to see what driving thousands of miles on salt-covered roads does to their latest designs.  Even one wheel falling off is too many, and I hope Mr. Cordaro's wheel incident will be the last one for Tesla for a long time. 

Sources:  The New York Times article on the wheel incident appeared on June 10 online at  The Inside EV article on the same incident is at, and cites Mr. Cordaro's original posting of the incident at
I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Tesla Model S, and Tesla's discussion of Supercharger stations at

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Rights and Wrongs of the Human Genome Project—Write

The highly prestigious journal Science carried an unusual article on June 2.  Most scientific papers are about new discoveries—we figured out this theory or we measured thus-and-so in that experiment.  Well, this paper was neither of those things.  In "The Human Genome Project—Write," the twenty-five co-authors announced their intention to synthesize a human genome from scratch.  In layman's terms, they are saying that they are going to design a human being. 
The way they plan to do this is through an organization calling itself the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology.  They plan to raise $100 million this year pretty much any way they can:  donations, private sources, government funding, you name it.  So far, one of the biggest contributors reportedly is Autodesk, maker of Autocad, the computer-aided design software familiar to mechanical engineers, architects, and lots of other people who make things.  Autodesk has chipped in a quarter million, and so the researchers are at least 0.25% closer to their goal.

I am dwelling on the mechanics of the plan because there is a question here of whether we are looking at science pure and simple, or a scheme that would look more at home in the hands of venture capitalists.  Now there's nothing wrong with doing science (pure or impure), and there's nothing wrong with making money, either.  But one can at least question whether a proposal that looks more like a business plan in some respects deserves to appear in the pages of a journal that usually carries things like Nobel-Prize-winning research that's already been done. 

What exactly are the authors proposing to do?  Well, you may remember the original Human Genome Project.  Its goal was to read a human genome, all 3-some-billion DNA base pairs of the chromosomes of a human being.  In computer-science terms, every base pair encodes one bit of information, and so your chromosomal description can in principle be contained in three billion bits or so, which can easily fit on a flash drive these days.  The Human Genome Project was finished around 2003 at a cost of about $3 billion, according to Wikipedia—about a dollar a base pair, it turns out. 

Reading the genome is one thing, but writing it and trying to use it is quite another.  If you go and synthesize this human genome, how will you know if it works unless you try to make a baby?  And that gets us into really deep ethical waters.

To their credit, the authors of the Science paper address this problem early on, referring to it as "ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI)."  They call for a lot of discussion of ELSI, and maybe devoting a fixed fraction of their funds to looking at the issues, but they don't say how they would test their creation.  Short of implanting the DNA in a human egg cell and seeing if it will develop normally into a baby, I'm not sure how they would test it. 

They mention stem-cell research as a model of how such tests would be done.  Stem-cell research has also been highly controversial ethically, because it can potentially lead to human cloning.  I am not a biologist, but the question seems to be that once you have a fertilized egg cell, how far do you let it develop?  If you just let it divide a few times and then stop it (=kill it, according to some views), you've shown that it can go that far, but you haven't learned much about its normality or whether all the details you put into the genome will show up in the final product, so to speak.  If you go all the way and try implanting it into a womb, you will learn a lot more about how your product performs, but at the risk of causing the woman to give birth to a baby with no parents—just a computer program.  At the same time, the risk of deformities or other abnormalities in the baby thus created will be very great.  So we have many of the moral issues associated with stem-cell research coming up with this project as well, only more so.

I intentionally used the word "product" to refer to the human who would be created through this process, because that is what he or she would be:  a completely engineered product from the start.  We have already gone pretty far down the unsavory road of regarding children as products, with prenatal genetic testing and selective abortions being used in case of a wide variety of problems ranging from Down's syndrome down to the simple issue of the wrong sex.  There are still countries where a fetus can be, and often is, aborted if the parents wanted a boy and it turns out to be a girl.  A lot of people think this is wrong, but it happens.

I salute the authors of the Human Genome Project—Write paper for recognizing that their proposal carries extremely serious ethical implications.  But I think they are trying to have their scientific cake and eat the profits too.  Although some reports about the organization formed to carry out the project say it is a non-profit, that term appears nowhere in the original paper, although the phrase "patent pools" does.  Patent pools are useful when a small number of powerful companies wish to engineer a functional near-monopoly in a new field.  It's not clear whether early investors in this project will be able to stake a claim on the intellectual property it generates, but my guess is they will.  That doesn't look like non-profit to me.

If this project leads to non-controversial things like being able to grow a replacement kidney for someone whose original kidneys have failed, that would be great.  I have a relative right now who has been needing a kidney transplant for several years, and he wishes he could go down to the kidney store and order a custom-made replacement model for his old kidneys.  If this project makes that possible without doing some reverse-Frankenstein-like thing such as first growing a human clone and then killing it for its kidneys, I hope it succeeds.  But the temptation to use new technical abilities for unethical things is always there, and if the ends require unethical means, I say: don't even go there.

Sources:  The New York Times carried a thorough report on the Human Genome Project—Write on June 2 at  The paper itself, published in Science the same day, can be accessed at  I also referred to a NYULangone press release at and the Wikipedia articles on non-coding DNA and the Human Genome Project (the original "read" project).