Monday, April 24, 2017

Earth Deserves Better Than TV Coverage of Climate Change


As I write this, a day after Earth Day 2017, the memory of hundreds of "Marches for Science" and in particular, a CNN report on climate change makes me wonder whether the medium of television is more harmful than helpful in bringing the attention of the general public to complex issues of public interest.  These thoughts are stimulated by an online article and video clip of the report, which featured an exchange between famed popularizer of science Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a man I have seen in person and exchanged emails with, one William Happer, a longtime Princeton physicist who thinks concerns about climate change are, to put it mildly, overblown.

An otherwise uninformed observer of the exchange saw two older men, Nye wearing a bright-red bow tie and Happer dressed in muted grays, in two panels of a four-screen split that included CNN anchors and a representative of an environmental group.  Nye was clearly upset at Happer's mild-toned assertions that carbon dioxide is something each of us produces two pounds of a day just by breathing, and to treat it as a pollutant is going too far.  What really got Nye going was when Happer compared the Paris climate accords recently signed by the Obama administration to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's Germany prior to World War II.  This one stunned even the anchors, who asked Happer to repeat himself, and he explained that the parallel was that neither agreement was going to achieve its stated aim.  Chamberlain failed to stop Germany from grabbing more territory in moves that led directly to World War II, and according to Happer, the Paris accords won't do anything significant to slow down climate change.

What media experts call the "visuals" were all in favor of Nye, a practiced TV performer who brought the right amount of passion to be convincing without yelling or seeming to lose his cool.  But if you look at the academic qualifications of these two parties, you might begin to change your mind.  Mr. Nye's highest formal degree is a B. S. in mechanical engineering, after which he started doing amateur comedy routines and developed the on-air personality for which he is now famous.  William Happer holds a Ph. D. in atomic physics from Princeton and is the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics at that institution.

As encouraging as the Paris agreement was to many who believe that the only moral thing to do with regard to climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels yesterday and undertake a massive retooling to renewable energy, hardly any of its terms are binding on the parties involved.  Like many other such agreements, it consists of hopeful statements of intentions, but if history is any guide, the only countries that will fulfill their obligations under the agreement are ones that were headed in that direction anyway. 

As University of Oxford professor of energy policy Dieter Helm points out in his book The Carbon Crunch, looking to international agreements as an effective means of lowering carbon emissions is probably a fool's errand.  Many European countries are currently outsourcing carbon-intensive industries such as steelmaking and heavy manufacturing to places like India and China, and so Europe can show a net reduction in carbon footprints that is happening not only because of high-minded dedication to the environment, but because of changes in the makeup of their economies toward services and high-tech businesses that simply don't need as much energy. 

As for China and India, the future growth of their economies depends vitally on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.  They are not about to put the economic brakes on developments that have led millions of their people out of rural subsistence-farming poverty to improved lives in manufacturing-intensive towns and cities.  The Paris agreement may look good on paper, but according to Helm, the chances of any significant dent being made in the world's carbon production by such an agreement roughly equal a snowball's chances in Hades (my metaphor, not his).

Since Helm has made his professional career out of taking global warming seriously, and  spends the rest of the book describing real-world near-term solutions to the problem of fossil-fuel emissions, I think we can count him as a credible witness.  And his conclusion is, leaving Hitler aside, that Happer's opinion on the effects of the Paris agreement is probably closer to the mark than Nye's.

When I sat down to write this blog, I was all set to denounce the politicization of science, and then I thought of another book I read recently:  The Pope of Science, a biography of the famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.  Fermi was a scientist's scientist, in that he lived, breathed, and slept science, taking little or no interest in politics and dealing with it only when it directly affected his livelihood (as when he and his partly-Jewish wife decided to flee Fascist Italy as it turned toward Hitler's Germany in its anti-Semitism), or when politics made it necessary to pursue a particular line of inquiry so that the Germans wouldn't make a nuclear weapon before the Allies did and take over the world.  For that reason, Fermi willingly led a team funded by the U. S. government to build the world's first nuclear reactor in 1942, which was a necessary step in the development of nuclear weapons.  But once the war was over, he was glad to get back to basic physics, for the most part.

The fact is, science has always been political to some degree, going all the way back to Francis Bacon, who took what passed for science in the 1500s and put it to work for the betterment of mankind.  Some scientists who worked on the nuclear bomb opposed its use in war, and some scientists today, such as Happer, criticize the plans for gigantic economic disruptions that would take place if the Bill Nyes of the world became dictators of our industrial and economic policies.  At least today, the debates are carried out in the open on widely accessible media.  It's hard to believe, but the entire nuclear-weapon development program in World War II was carried out in near-total secrecy, in a fashion that would get witheringly criticized in view of today's standards of open debate about major publicly-funded projects.  And the outcome, namely nuclear weaponry, has posed a moral quandary ever since. 

But the Nye-Happer confrontation is a reminder that visuals can be deceptive, and there is always more to be learned about a technical subject than you see on TV.

Sources:  The CNN report and video of the Nye-Happer exchange can be viewed at http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/04/22/watch_bill_nye_blast_cnn_on_air_for_pitting_him_against_climate_change_skeptic.html.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Bill Nye, William Happer, and Enrico Fermi.  Dieter Helm's The Carbon Crunch:  How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How To Fix It was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.  The Pope of Physics by Gino Segré and Bettina Hoerlin was published in 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.  I blogged on my encounter with William Happer and the dissing of his talk by a gathering of otherwise well-behaved scientists on Oct. 7, 2013 in "When Scientists Aren't Scientists."

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Modest Proposal to Save California $200 Million


In order to forestall a lot of hate mail, the following blog is written in the tradition of eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal."  It is not meant to be taken seriously. 

With that out of the way, I have a modest proposal to save the good citizens of California over $200 million.  That is the estimated cost of a suicide-deterrent net project that is going to be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Examiner. 

Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is as iconic a symbol of San Francisco as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.  But shortly after it opened, its builders found that they had constructed what lawyers call an attractive hazard, like an unfenced swimming pool in a neighborhood full of small children.  The 240-foot plunge from the sidewalk of the bridge to the deep waters below began to draw despondent individuals of all kinds, who generally did not survive their high dives.  According to the Examiner, 1,558 people have committed suicide by diving from the bridge, an average of about one person every two or three weeks.  And this is despite intensive efforts of patrolmen specially trained to spot depressed-looking loners who evince an unhealthy-looking interest in the view from the sidewalk. 

So at long last, after numerous engineering proposals and at least one squabble over who should have won the bid, engineers plan to install a wire-rope mesh on the bridge, about 20 feet below the level of the sidewalk and extending 20 feet out on both sides.  The rendering posted online makes it look fairly unobtrusive, but it will inevitably change the appearance of the bridge, sort of like putting fishnet hose on the legs of a beautiful woman.  (Sometimes it helps, but generally it just looks tacky.)  So if you've never seen the bridge in its present netless state, you'd better go look fast, because soon they will put up temporary fences along the sidewalks to keep people from throwing things at the construction workers below.  This last measure is a consequence of sad experience—pedestrians evidently not only can't be trusted to stay on the sidewalk, they can't keep their potential missiles to themselves either.

And now for the modest proposal.  Last June, California enacted an assisted-suicide law.  It is now legal in that state to plan and execute your own death and funeral, and people have already started taking advantage of this law.  We now see the interesting spectacle of Californians on the one hand spending $200 million to stop a few dozen people a year from doing themselves in, and on the other hand, encouraging people who really want to do themselves in to go ahead and do it. 

For $200 million, a lot of people contemplating suicide in California could have an all-expense paid trip from wherever they live to San Francisco.  Those with debilitating diseases could take ambulance rides, and even they might manage to live it up overnight in the garden of nightlife delights for which San Francisco is famous.  Then, with all good-byes said, the person could be assisted out onto the sidewalk and take the time-honored way out that more than 1500 of their fellow citizens have chosen over the years.  And of course, we wouldn't want any ugly fish-net suicide deterrent to get in the way, so there's where you'd save $200 million.

I don't expect anybody to jump at this idea (so to speak), except to say how tacky I am to conflate the people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge with the people who take advantage of the new assisted-suicide law.  But the point I'm trying to make with my proposal is this:  is suicide okay, or is it wrong?  Or does the answer depend entirely on the convenience of the professionals involved?

It's beginning to look like the latter is the best available answer, at least where California is concerned. 

Take doctors who want to put some of their suffering patients out of their misery, but are worried that someone will find out and charge them with murder.  Solution:  pass an assisted-suicide law that makes it legal.  Now the docs don't have to worry about murder charges. 

Take first responders who, after someone takes their last high dive from the bridge, have the disagreeable task of conducting a search, possibly in bad weather, and fishing out said diver from the drink.  It's expensive, dangerous, and bad publicity besides.  So once the nets are in place, people who are determined to jump will either find another bridge, or if they're really determined, they'll jump down onto the net and, using the exercise-honed athletic skills that many Californians take pride in, they will crawl to the edge of the net and finish the job.  You heard it here first.  Notice the designers don't call it a suicide-prevention device, just a suicide deterrent.  So even $200 million isn't going to reduce the number of suicides from the bridge to zero, and the authorities implicitly admit that.

All satire aside, I think doing something more to keep people from jumping off bridges to their deaths is a good idea.  And maybe the giant stainless-steel nets on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the best way to do it, although the price tag gives me pause.  The expenditure of so much money on suicide prevention, on the one hand, and the passage of a law saying that basically it's okay to off yourself, on the other hand, reveals a deep split or inconsistency in attitudes toward suicide in our most populous state. 

This nation's founders allowed for differences in belief on the part of its citizens.  But for most of the history of the United States, there was a general consensus, based upon mostly religious tenets, that suicide, assisted or not, had no redeeming social value and was to be discouraged in law and in engineering (and in medicine, too).  As evinced by the assisted-suicide law in California, this consensus has broken down, at least in that part of the country.  And that's a sad thing, for both those who stand on the sidewalk of a bridge thinking about jumping, and those who lie in a nursing home thinking about hastening their own end. 

Sources:  The San Francisco Examiner website carried the article "Construction to begin on Golden Gate Bridge suicide deterrent system," on Apr. 13, 2017 at http://www.sfexaminer.com/construction-begin-golden-gate-bridge-suicide-deterrent-system/.  A rendering of what the system may look like once installed can be viewed at
http://www.ggbsuicidebarrier.org/images/suicide-deterrent-rendering-looking-north.jpg.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Really Happened With Internet Privacy?


Anyone paying attention to U. S. headlines recently heard something about internet privacy.  But what you heard probably depends on where you heard it.  President Trump signed a bill on Monday, Apr. 3 that used a thing called the Congressional Review Act to reverse a pending FCC rule.  So whatever it was, the rule that was revoked hadn't even gone into effect yet.

If it hadn't been shot down, the FCC's proposed rule would have required internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T to request permission from their customers to use certain data about what the customers do online.  Right now, ISPs don't have to ask, but depending on the ISP, they may not be doing much with that data anyway.  The big users of customer-generated data are social-media outlets such as Facebook, Internet companies such as Google, and advertisers who pay these outfits to place targeted ads using harvested customer data.  I'm sure the ISPs would like to get into that business eventually, but the FCC rule would have blocked them.  President Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress simply removed that stumbling block.

So for one thing, nobody lost any internet privacy they previously had.  As to the hypothetical future, it's anybody's guess what the FCC rule might have done, but clearly the ISPs were not happy about it, which was how the rule got quashed by a corporate-friendly Congress and President.

How you feel about this may depend on what you think about internet privacy and corporate freedom.  At this point in history, the phrase "Internet privacy" is about as meaningful as "Trump modesty."  Both are in short supply.  Most people who spend any time at all on the web have turned from looking for electric toothbrushes online, say, to researching the versions of ancient Mayan calendars, only to have an ad for toothbrushes pop up in the middle of the British Museum's webpage.  Obviously, a combination of "cookies" (little browser things that tell servers where your web browser has been) and clever marketing schemes has engineered that outcome.  All the FCC rule might have done would have been to stop ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon from doing similar things, at least without asking first.   And the asking could have been buried in one of those novel-length terms-and-conditions documents that everybody must either lie about reading before signing onto a new service, or actually read (and I don't know anybody who reads them).  The only reason that the FCC could have passed the rule in the first place lies in the historical carve-outs of which Federal agency gets to regulate what electronic communications means.  A similar historical fluke explains why on-the-air TV shows are not quite as raunchy as cable shows:  the FCC gets to regulate on-air stuff, but not cable-only stuff.

So what has been portrayed in some circles as an epic loss of consumer protection turns out to be more of a turf battle among giant powerful Federal agencies and giant corporations, and the consumer just gets to watch the results from the sidelines. 

Even though the actual effect of either the FCC ruling or its revocation by Congress and the President might have been minimal, it's worth asking a broader question about how consumers—or citizens, to use a more general term—are faring with respect to the centers of power in the U. S.  I recently ran across a blog by a man who, back in May of 2016 before the party conventions had selected either Presidential candidate, predicted that Trump would not only be the Republican nominee, but that he'd win too.  Anybody can make a lucky guess, but this gentleman, a writer by the name of John C. Médaille, based his prediction on the fact that ordinary Americans were enraged that their interests have been ignored in favor of the interests of "the Rich, the powerful, the banker, the foreigner."  Of course, our current President belongs to at least two of those categories himself, and Médaille was far from pleased that Trump was probably going to win.  But he was right.

Powerful corporations such as Google and Facebook are able to offer "free" services that compel users to generate content that profits the companies.  Médaille, who believes in an obscure and mostly forgotten system of economics called distributism, sees this sort of thing as an injustice, which brings the matter into the scope of engineering ethics.  Because engineering, broadly speaking, makes everything on the Internet possible, engineers who work for such companies shouldn't simply turn a blind eye to the applications of their code, saying, "All they pay me to do is code.  What they do with the code isn't my business."  Google's code of conduct, summed up in the phrase "Don't be evil," is a masterful exercise in question-begging, namely because at least to my knowledge, it doesn't include a definition of "evil." 

And by the nature of human relations, we can never set out a precisely-written code of conduct that a robot could follow flawlessly, because we're not robots.  We're human beings, each of us a mystical world unto ourselves, and relations among such beings cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas. 

The kerfuffle about the proposed FCC ruling shows that, although our current President ran as the vindicator of the common man and woman, reality may be setting in rather faster than anyone expected—reality being the continuation of a long-term trend of concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of an oligarchic few.  By the nature of modern engineering, most engineers will end up working for medium-size to large corporations, and therefore have a perhaps unconscious bias in favor of policies and actions that favor such corporations. 

However, there are reasons that millions of people in the U. S. have experienced stagnating wages, worsening work conditions, and a lack of genuine opportunities to be a free contributor to the common wealth.  Instead, unless you have reached a certain educational level, your options are nearly all of the "heads we win, tails you lose" variety, and many men in particular have taken the easy way out of simply giving up on work and living off the meager surpluses of welfare and compliant relatives and girlfriends that are available. 

To reverse such trends will take more than an internecine government flap.  It will take first, awareness of the depth and scope of the problem, and second, a willingness to overlook differences and artificial divisions set up by those hoping to keep the masses tranquil, and to do something in a united way that will bring about meaningful change.  But that is a topic for another time.

Sources:  I used material from The Hill's website posted on Apr. 3, 2017 at http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/327107-trump-signs-internet-privacy-repeal., entitled "Trump signs Internet privacy repeal."  That article referred to a blog by a person described as "AT&T's top lobbyist" Bob Quinn at https://www.attpublicpolicy.com/privacy/reversing-obamas-fcc-regulations-a-path-to-consumer-friendly-privacy-protections/, which I also referred to.  John C. Médaille's prediction of Trump's triumph and his mixed feelings about it can be read at http://distributistreview.com/cassandra-calls-election/.  Another blog of mine on distributism can be found at http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/what-is-distributism-and-why-should.html.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Atlanta Burns a Bridge


For several years—possibly since 2006, according to one report—construction crews working near an elevated section of Interstate 85 near Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta had stored large quantities of bright-orange high-density-polyethylene (HDPE) pipe.  It's used for a variety of things in public works, such as conduits for streetlight and traffic-signal cables, and comes in large reels two or three feet high each, that were stacked two high under a bridge span.  It's not the kind of thing one could just shove in a backpack and walk off with, so authorities thought that just surrounding the stash of pipe with a chain-link fence was enough security.

Last Thursday, March 30, a fire was reported under the span, and despite desperate attempts by firefighters to combat the fierce heat for over an hour, several emergency responders barely escaped with their lives when the span over the pipes collapsed, damaging both northbound and southbound parts of the interstate to the extent that it will be closed for several months for repairs.  Eyewitnesses reportedly saw Basil Eleby, an apparently homeless man, standing on a chair in a shopping cart near the fence shortly before the blaze, and Eleby is now in jail, unable to post $200,000 bond and awaiting trial for arson.

Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in the fire or collapse, but Atlanta commuters are going to have to deal with serious disruptions, as that part of I-85 is the main transportation corridor between downtown and the northeastern suburbs, normally carrying over 100,000 cars a day.  It was how I would get downtown from the suburb of Chamblee during my two years working as an engineer at Scientific-Atlanta, and I can only imagine the traffic snarls that this will cause.

Clearly, nobody expected this to happen, and for over a decade it didn't happen.  Those pipes have been sitting there at least that long, and as far as accident-prevention policies are concerned, it didn't look much like an accident waiting to happen.  Of course, arson isn't an accident, but it's unlikely that Mr. Eleby had any idea what would happen if he tried to set those pipes on fire.  It's too early to know what his motives might have been, but even if it turns out that he was hoping to cause major damage, I doubt that he really expected to bring down a bridge span single-handed.

One good thing that could result from this fire is that construction organizations everywhere will now view large accumulations of HDPE pipe with a different attitude.  It's not as dangerous as big piles of ammonium nitrate, which is known to be a powerful explosive under the wrong conditions.  But HDPE is a little bit like solid gasoline, in that it's just concentrated carbon and hydrogen with convenient air holes in it to aid combustion, and it's not surprising that a large stack of such pipes burned so hot for so long. 

It's far from criminally negligent to store that much flammable pipe under a vital transportation artery, but it wasn't the smartest thing to do, either, especially in an area where homeless people tend to hang out.  For complex sociological and economic reasons, many highway overpasses in major cities across the U. S. have been informally colonized over the past few decades by people who don't have, or don't wish to have, any other place to stay that will keep the rain and sun off.  Most of the time, the worst things these folks do is deal drugs, harass passersby, and leave messes, but now and then they can turn to more consequential criminal activity, such as the apparent arson that brought down the I-85 span.

I'll leave it to the civil engineers who will no doubt be combing through the wreckage to figure out exactly how hot a bridge has to get before it collapses.  But if steel was a significant component of the bridge—and it had to be, either as the main support or as rebar in concrete—well, steel melts at a certain temperature, and well before that it gets soft enough to lose most of its tensile strength, and there goes your bridge. 

Like many isolated mishaps that don't fit the usual patterns, a number of individually common events and conditions had to come together to cause this fire.  Both homeless people and construction supervisors see otherwise wasted public land under overpasses as a good place to take advantage of, either for living space or for storage.  And in secure warehouses, HDPE pipe is no more hazardous than furniture or wooden forklift pallets, which are notorious for burning fast because of the combination of flammable material and openings where combustion-aiding air can get in.  The chain-link fence around the pipes apparently kept intruders out for the ten or more years the pipes had been stored there, and there was no obvious reason to be concerned that some disgruntled or mentally deranged person would come along and try to damage the pipes.  But he did.

This fire, as bad as it was, could have been much worse.  It lasted long enough for first responders to isolate the area and stop traffic along the highway, keeping commuters out of harm's way.  And while fire-department personnel were unable to put out the fire before the span collapsed, at least no one was injured in the collapse.  Still, it would have been nice if they could have extinguished it before it got so widespread that it endangered the highway bridge overhead. 

Maybe it would be a good idea to install remotely monitored fire alarms in every big pile of HDPE in a public place, especially if it would cause serious damage if it caught fire.  True, there might be an issue with false alarms.  But I bet Atlanta's first responders would have been willing to put up with a few false alarms in order to prevent something that's now going to be a serious inconvenience for millions of drivers, and a multimillion-dollar expense for the taxpayers.  Next time you're in Atlanta, your best bet in getting around may be their MARTA trains, at least until they fix I-85.

Sources:  I consulted a number of news reports on the fire, including one on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website at http://www.ajc.com/news/traffic/here-are-answers-your-questions-about-the-bridge-collapse/ZF0mtVvi7jedImZYKP7FuN/ and Atlanta's Channel 11 News at http://www.11alive.com/news/what-was-burning-under-the-i-85-overpass/427257767, as well as the Wikipedia article on HDPE. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ransomware Comes To the Heartland


Imagine the following scenario circa 1962.  From an aircraft carrier in international waters in the Gulf Coast near Houston, the USSR flies a team of helicopters that land in a parking lot outside a urology clinic in Baytown, Texas, on the Gulf Coast.  Soldiers with AK-47s surround the clinic and hold everyone in it hostage until all the files inside are loaded onto a helicopter.  Then the leader of the team informs the head of the clinic that they're holding the files for $5000 ransom.

Sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn't it?  For one thing, a Soviet aircraft carrier wouldn't have been allowed to get into the Gulf of Mexico during the Cold War.  And even if it had, U. S. Air Force planes would have shot down anything flying toward the Texas coastline.  And to mount an invasion force of that magnitude only to hold some clinic's files hostage would be like killing a flea with a nuclear weapon. 

But fast-forward to 2017, and the moral equivalent of that crazy scenario not only could happen—it did happen.  First, some background.

From 2007 to 2015, my father-in-law lived with us until he passed away, and one of the medical services he needed was provided by a coalition of formerly independent urologists called Urology Austin.  It is a medium-size group of about 20 physicians and associated service people, but is strictly a local concern, not affiliated with a national chain.  As I learned when I opened an envelope from them last week, on Jan. 22 of this year, the organization was the victim of a ransomware attack.

Ransomware secretly infects a victim's computer system by various means.  When it's triggered by the attacker, it encrypts the victim's data and demands payment for un-encrypting it.  We are as reliant on computer systems now as we are on electric light and communications systems, and in many cases, saying good-by to one's data is effectively saying good-by to one's business.  So unless victims have a robust and constantly updated physical backup system, they usually have no choice but to pay the ransom, which can be in the five- to six-figure range.  And even then, according to one report by Forbes, fewer than half of the victims actually get all of their data back.  Add to all this hassle the fact that in the case of medical records, a lot of confidential patient information has been compromised, and you have a small businesman's nightmare. 

The Forbes article says that in 2016 the number of ransomware attacks exploded, going from 3.8 million in 2015 to 638 million in 2016.  It's not clear whether that number counts only attempts, or successful attacks in which money was paid, but in either case, ransomware is posing a significant hazard not only to large corporations, but to small- and medium-size firms that can't afford huge staffs of IT people constantly on the alert for the latest type of ransomware attack.  Which is one reason the attackers go for them, of course. 

Historically, a dicey part of any ransom or shakedown crime in which the attacker wishes to remain anonymous is the payoff mechanism.  But cybercriminals have the convenience of bitcoin to thank for making that part easier too.  Bitcoin is a "blockchain" system that apparently furnishes virtually untraceable means of transferring large amounts of money.  While there are legitimate reasons for such a system, bitcoin seems to be implicated in a wider and wider range of dubious and illegal transactions, ranging from drug deals to ransom payoffs.

The radically international nature of the Internet is showing signs of making the historical idea of the sovereignty of a nation-state within its borders ineffectual, if not obsolete.  Back when the only means of communication were tangible objects such as letters, keeping a nation's borders secure meant that anyone wishing to steal or pillage inside that nation first had to invade the country, with all the paraphernalia of war that invasion involves.  Invasion was a big deal, and so not that many countries tried to invade other countries, and when they did, they had to pay the price of casualties and deaths.

But now, something close to the same effect of theft and pillage accompanying an invasion can be visited on a humble little urology clinic minding its own business in Central Texas, from an unknown invader who is probably halfway around the world.  As war has shown through history, human institutions always lag behind technological developments—sometimes catching up pretty fast, but sometimes falling behind for years or even decades. 

In a time when government is seen to be the problem as least as much as it is seen to be a solution, I hesitate to call on governments to attempt anything more than what they're doing already.  But just as the entire power of the military would have been called on to defend our shores against the imaginary USSR invasion of 1962 whose target was Baytown, because one urology clinic can't be expected to protect itself against a foreign power, it seems to me that when threats from outside the country start to cause significant losses to private interests that can't defend themselves adequately, it is one traditional role of government to intervene in order to protect those who can't protect themselves.

I leave the form this governmental protection would take up to those who know better about how to organize such things efficiently.  In general, the U. S. military seems to have preserved its integrity with regard to getting specific jobs done, better than most other parts of the federal government.  But there is a strong and well-justified tradition of limiting military action inside the borders of the United States—the danger being that if this limit wasn't in place, we would be in danger of becoming a police state.  Nevertheless, as the nature of foreign invasions changes, traditions may have to change too. 

I hope Urology Austin recovered from its ransomware attack without too much loss of cash, data, or goodwill.  But I also hope that those who are in a position to do something about it will start to reorganize our military efforts to acknowledge the fact that attacks from foreign powers no longer come only in the form of soldiers, ships, planes, and missiles, but also as weaponized bits.

Sources:  Besides the letters mailed to our address from Urology Austin, I referred to the Wikipedia article on ransomware and the article "2016 Saw An Insane Rise In The Number Of Ransomware Attacks" that appeared on the Forbes website on Feb. 7, 2017 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/leemathews/2017/02/07/2016-saw-an-insane-rise-in-the-number-of-ransomware-attacks/#5f4256c558dc. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

In Praise of Doppler Weather Radars


On Mar. 28, 1920, a series of more than 30 deadly tornadoes made widespread paths of destruction through the central and southern U. S. and caused deaths from Michigan all the way to LaGrange, Georgia.  Shortly before 6 P. M., that southern mill town was struck by a tornado with an estimated Fujita rating of F3, which means its winds probably ranged from 158 to 206 MPH.  After wrecking a cluster of worker's houses, the town's main mill and factory were both destroyed.  A total of twenty-seven people died in and around LaGrange as a result of this storm, which was the largest death toll caused by any tornado of the outbreak.

On Mar. 6, 2017, Oak Grove, Missouri was also hit by an F3 tornado, one of more than 30 tornadoes sighted that day which touched down during an outbreak that was similar in many respects to the one that happened 97 years earlier.  Although over 400 homes sustained moderate to severe damage ranging from partially or completely destroyed roofs to almost complete destruction, only twelve people in the town were injured and there were no deaths reported as a result of the tornado.

Why did 27 die in the LaGrange tornado and no one died in the Oak Grove tornado?  There are many reasons, but one I would like to focus on here is the existence and use of Doppler weather radars for tornado tracking and warning.

In The Tornado: Nature's Ultimate Windstorm, longtime weather researcher Thomas P. Grazulis describes the long process of discovery, research, technical advances, technology transfer from the research lab to National Weather Service and private users such as TV stations, and finally the incorporation of Doppler weather radar into the process of issuing official tornado warnings with their widespread dissemination through media outlets such as radio, TV, and now the Internet and mobile phones. 

Although standards of building construction have certainly improved from the 1920s to now, it is likely that most people in LaGrange in the 1920 storm had no clue that a tornado was coming, and most people in Oak Grove in the 2017 storm did.  Here in Texas, I grew up with the threat of tornadoes, and have memories of legendary weatherman Harold Taft of WBAP-TV in Fort Worth using one of the earliest weather radars installed at a TV station in the early 1960s to track dangerous storms. 

Conventional (non-Doppler) radars are somewhat useful in tracking tornadoes, because a characteristic hook shape sometimes develops on the radar screen when a tornado forms.  But it is by no means definitive, and if the storm is in a "cluttered" region such as a city, where radar returns from storms are masked by returns from tall buildings, you can lose the ability to track such a storm just where you need it most.  Then came Doppler radar.

The basic Doppler principle has been used in simple police radars since the 1950s.  The idea is that a moving object reflects radar waves at a slightly different frequency than the one that the transmitter emits.  The frequency shift is directly proportional to the speed of the reflecting object with respect to the transmitter, so valuable information about wind speed is contained in the radar return from wind-whipped rain and hail in a thunderstorm. 

Unfortunately, the technology of the 1950s was mostly too primitive to take advantage of the Doppler aspect of radar echoes, and early Doppler radars were so expensive that only the military could afford them (they were also good for detecting another class of dangerous moving objects, namely missiles).  But as both radar and computer technology advanced, first adventurous weather researchers, then government labs, and finally the National Weather Service and private interests such as TV stations could afford to buy commercial versions of Doppler radars. 

Grazulis describes how as early as 1958, experimental Doppler radars proved useful in measuring wind speeds associated with a Wichita, Kansas tornado.  But it took another thirty years of research and development before the WSR-88D series of weather radars were produced commercially and installed in dozens of National Weather Service facilities across the country.  With virtually every TV and cable TV outlet in "Tornado Alley now having its own Doppler weather radar, anyone with the slightest interest in what the weather is doing on a stormy day can tune in or look at a phone app to see extremely detailed maps of exactly where a suspected or verified tornado is headed, complete with extrapolations of likely travel directions and arrival times. 

While we can't say we're not informed about tornadoes, there are still those who either can't receive such messages, or don't care.  So public education is still an important aspect in the fact that although the U. S. population has increased from 1900 to 2000 by a factor of 3.5 or more, the annual death rate from tornadoes declined in that time from about 180 per year to less than 60 per year.  That is still too many, but the combination of better-constructed housing, a better-educated populace, and vastly improved information networks that convey Doppler weather radar information virtually instantaneously to thousands of potentially endangered individuals no doubt helped to limit the casualties that resulted from the Oak Grove tornado earlier this month.

Still, Grazulis says there is much more to be done.  The formation and life cycle of a tornado is one of the most physically complex weather events known.  Although computer models can simulate many aspects of tornado formation, we still do not have either enough raw data or the computing power to predict exactly when and where tornadoes will form, or what they will do once they form.  So we can presently track and describe tornadoes remotely once they show up.  But it would be nice to be able to say on a minute-by-minute basis exactly which storm will produce a deadly tornado, and which will make only rain, hail, or strong straight-line winds. 

Nevertheless, we can be grateful to the largely nameless teams of researchers, engineers, and administrators who together have provided the excellent warning system we have today.  All we in Tornado Alley have to do now this tornado season, is to heed the warnings.

Sources:  The Tornado:  Nature's Ultimate Windstorm by Thomas P. Grazulis was published in Norman, Oklahoma by the  Univ. of Oklahoma Press in 2001.  For details of the Oak Grove tornado I used an Associated Press story carried on the U. S. News and World Report website at https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/missouri/articles/2017-03-07/homes-damaged-as-severe-storms-tornadoes-hit-midwest.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on LaGrange, Georgia and the 1920 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Game of Chance: The Grade-Crossing Accident in Biloxi


One of the first safety issues faced by the early railroad engineers (meaning the designers, as well as the guys who drove the trains) was how to handle grade crossings:  the place where a railroad line intersects a surface road.  The only foolproof way to handle such an intersection is to build a bridge so the foot or wheel traffic never obstructs the rail line.  Bridges are expensive, though, so in the twentieth century in the U. S. most grade crossings were simply equipped with warning signs and signals, and the railroads and local road authorities hoped for the best.  As the accident on Mar. 7 in Biloxi, Mississippi proved, the best is sometimes pretty bad.

Biloxi and the surrounding area is a magnet for retirees who like to spice up their lives with games of chance, and so tour buses transporting seniors from as far away as Texas and other states are a common sight in town.  A CSX railroad line runs east-west through town, at a level of a few feet above the surrounding flat coastal land, and crosses Main Street at a grade crossing.  When the crossing was built, probably in the early 1900s, the longest wheeled vehicle likely to cross it was no more than about twenty feet long, and the slight rise of the rail-line level from the street on either side of the tracks presented no problem.  But with the development of trailers and buses later in the century that were fifty feet long or more, these raised grade crossings presented a hazard, because vehicles with a long wheelbase can scrape the rails and lose traction, getting stuck on the tracks.  And at the intersection in question, there have been numerous accidents caused by just such a problem since the 1970s, both fatal and non-fatal.

On Tuesday, March 7, the driver of a tour bus transporting vacationers from the Bastrop, Texas Senior Center was apparently deviating from his bus company's prescribed route when he approached the CSX crossing on Main Street.  And just as many other drivers of long vehicles discovered, his bus wasn't going to make it.  According to reports, the bus was stuck for about five minutes before a three-locomotive freight train hit it, carrying the bus about 200 feet down the tracks.  Although riders had begun to flee the bus before the collision, many were still trapped inside when the train struck.  Four people were killed, including a couple from Lockhart, not far from where I live.  Thirty-five people were injured, several critically.

Most people know that trains can't stop on a dime, or even a quarter-mile row of dollar bills.  The laws of physics make it almost impossible to safely dissipate the huge amount of energy represented by a loaded train moving, say, 25 miles per hour (as the CSX freight was before the engineer saw the bus stuck on the tracks) without taking many seconds and hundreds of feet to do it in.  So realistically, it's up to drivers to stay out of the way of trains on grade-crossing tracks.

Railroad companies have tried all kinds of things to prevent people from getting stuck on tracks:  bells, gates, signs warning that long vehicles can get stuck (there were such signs posted at the Main Street crossing), even heavy-handed color movies displaying in grim detail the consequences of taking chances with trains.  (I watched one of those movies on a rainy day in elementary school when the teacher was desperate to keep us distracted during recess, and it gave me nightmares.)  But if drivers ignore warning signs and, once a bus is stuck, fail to evacuate it promptly, the inevitable is going to happen sooner or later, as it did last week in Biloxi.

As an article in the Austin American-Statesman pointed out, not even the new and costly Positive Train Control (PTC) system now being installed by railroads across the U. S. would have prevented this accident.  PTC is a semi-automated system that will prevent head-on train-train collisions and will regulate speeds if the human operator gets careless.  This will make passenger trains safer and reduce the number of freight-train accidents.  But even PTC can't keep people from getting stuck on the tracks at grade crossings. 

The overall incidence of fatal accidents involving U. S. railroads has decreased since the 1990s, but until grade crossings with humps such as the one in Biloxi are eliminated, there is always the chance of a careless truck or bus driver coming along and getting stuck on the tracks.  Towns that can afford the space and expense are replacing grade crossings with overpasses that both improve traffic flow and eliminate the safety hazard, but as the American Society of Civil Engineers has been fond of pointing out for decades, America is way behind in infrastructure improvements such as these. 

Right here in San Marcos, we have two frequently-used rail lines that used to cut the town in two at the three major intersections of east-west roadways and railroad lines.  And on rare occasions, a long train or trains would simply stop at these crossings, making it difficult or impossible for emergency vehicles to get from the west side of town to the hospital on the east side.  About eight years ago, the city built an overpass at the grade crossing nearest the hospital, and currently another bridge is being built over the second of the three major crossings.  But this will still leave an old-fashioned humped grade crossing near the middle of town, which fortunately is not situated on a major traffic artery.  Still, there is always a chance that a wayward truck or bus will get stuck there, although such an incident hasn't happened in the seventeen years we've lived here.

Perhaps this whole issue of grade-crossing hazards will fade into the past as autonomous passsenger vehicles come into general use.  One hopes that the programmers of those vehicles will build in a fail-safe way to keep them away from railroad tracks where the vehicle is likely to get stuck, and to obey crossing warnings.  But unless the passenger is completely unable to influence the car's motion in any way, there will still be people who will override the safety features and try to cross against warning signs and signals—and they will be taking a chance they shouldn't try to take.

Sources:  I referred to articles on the accident published on the site heavy.com at http://heavy.com/news/2017/03/biloxi-bus-train-crash-accident-deaths-toll-injuries-derailed-killed-mississippi-update-how/ and ABC-TV News, New York at http://abc7ny.com/news/history-of-deadly-mississippi-train-crash-site-a-focus-of-investigation/1790941/, as well as a print report "Biloxi bus crash highlights limits of high-tech safety measures for trains," by Ben Wear carried in the Mar. 12, 2017 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, pp. A1 and A6.  The gripping drama "The Last Clear Chance" (produced by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1959) can be viewed at the Prelinger Archive of ephemeral films at https://archive.org/details/0845_Last_Clear_Chance_The_08_29_26_00. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Telephone Museum, Anyone?


The spirit of modern science and technology is forward-looking, always reaching out for the next new discovery or invention and neglecting that which went before.  The creative destruction of the global technological economy means that every new technology is on a moving conveyor belt taking it to the dustbin of history, where its physical component parts are destroyed or recycled and knowledge of it largely vanishes. 

But there is still value in understanding where we came from, what life was like for previous generations, and what mistakes were made back then that we could possibly avoid in the future, if we only knew what they were.  So it is especially notable when a person engaged in the very anti-historical pursuit of communications engineering spends a lifetime preserving the technology that he himself helped to make obsolete.  And it would be something close to tragic if the fruit of his efforts ends up falling off the end of the conveyor belt anyway into scrap heaps and obscurity.

Around 1962, a young Texas farm boy named Don Capehart got a job with Western Electric, which was then the manufacturing, engineering, and design arm of the monolithic Bell System.  Capehart's job led him to the secretive innards of the giant electromechanical machine that was the telephone network back then.  About that time, Western Electric engineers were installing the equipment that enabled direct long-distance dialing by customers, who then no longer had to call the operator to set up a long-distance call.  For the next twenty years he installed and maintained Bell System equipment throughout Texas and neighboring states, and gained an intimate familiarity with it that few others enjoyed.

Then came 1982 and the breakup of the Bell System.  No longer would Bell equipment be manufactured, used, recycled, and rebuilt entirely within a single corporate structure.  As the individual operating companies started to buy non-Western-Electric equipment, huge piles of old telephone gear showed up on surplus, or headed for the scrap heap.  Something in Don rebelled against the idea that an entire way of life, telephone-wise, was to vanish from the earth.  So he bought a disused soft-drink bottling plant in his home town of Corsicana and began collecting old telephone equipment in it, and he kept it up once he became an independent telecommunications consultant who was often called in to replace antiquated gear with modern stuff.

Today, the Capehart Communications Museum houses everything from 1880s switchboards, to a Western-Electric-built Vitaphone phonograph system linked to a 1927 movie projector for the first sound films, to civil-defense supplies stored in nuclear-strike-hardened telephone exchanges of the 1960s, to an entire portable telephone office used during the Vietnam War, and much, much more in about 10,000 square feet of space.  Would you like to see the racks of equipment that it took to form the microwave-link network that made transcontinental network television possible in the U. S. in the 1950s?  It's there.  Would you like to see switchboards that have starred in movies?  They're out there. 

As fascinating as the hardware is, listening to Don himself as he gives a guided tour is even better.  In 2011 he was featured on the TV show "American Pickers," and that episode proved to be one of the most popular ever screened.  On that show he might have told the following story that he experienced during his days of laying some of the first fiber-cable runs to be buried in West Texas, when one day they started digging on some ranch property.

A day after his crew started, they got up and headed back to where their equipment was, and found it surrounded by a new barbed-wire fence and four guys with shotguns.  Don knew better than to try to talk to anybody with a shotgun, so he sent to town for a cop and waited.  When the cop arrived, Don explained the situation to him, and the cop went over and said to the rancher, "Juan, get your men to put those guns away, we gotta talk."
           
"All right, but my family's owned this land since the 1880s and damned if I'm gonna let these guys onto my land."
           
Don said, "Sir, see over there, that notch cut between the hills?"
           
"Yep, what about it?"
           
"That's a railroad cut.  A railroad used to go through here, and a telegraph line.  The railroad's been pulled up, but AT&T still owns the right-of-way to put a line through here."
           
"Like hell you do.  My family's owned—" and so on.  Finally Don called AT&T headquarters and he and his workers cooled their heels in a motel for three days.  Then Don and his crew got word from headquarters that everything was straightened out.  They went back out to the ranch, where owner Juan came up to them and said, "All right, you can put your damned cable through.  But lemme tell you one thing—I hate Philadelphia lawyers."  

Don now has a problem.  He and his wife are retired and getting up in years, and his museum has never been a success financially.  Also, Corsicana is not exactly a major metropolitan area, which it would take to support an institution such as his museum.  So he has concluded to put the establishment up for sale.  Obviously, it is a quixotic hope that someone will come along and pay his asking price—a million dollars—and ship the entire collection off to a new home where youngsters will be awed by the tremendous trouble and expense it used to take to do something as simple as making a phone call.  But if he can't sell it intact, he's afraid that when he's gone, his heirs will just leave the door open one day and let technological vultures pick the place to pieces.

This would be wrong, a shame, and a bad reflection on the entire discipline of communications engineering to let such a treasure be lost to history.  On the other hand, if Don hadn't been quite so enthusiastic over the years, the collection might be more manageable.  At any rate, perhaps my effort here to bring the perils of the Capehart Communications Museum to the attention of a slightly wider public will bear some fruit.  If it doesn't, and if you have the slightest interest in seeing this unique collection while it is still intact, hie yourself to South Ninth Street in Corsicana, ask Don for a tour, and be generous with a donation at the end.  It's the least you can do.

Sources:  My wife and I had some extra time during an overnight stay in Corsicana last December, and happened upon a brochure for the Capehart Communications Museum.  Don was gracious enough to give us a tour, and told us several stories and of his hopes to preserve it.  The museum's official website is http://telemuseum.info, through which you can communicate with Don Capehart.