Monday, June 14, 2021

Should We Worry About the Chip Shortage?

 

A recent article in Wired goes into the reasons for the current worldwide integrated-circuit shortage, which is affecting everybody from videogamers to drivers who want to buy new cars, but can't because the automakers can't get enough chips.  Reporter Eric Ravenscraft says there are several interrelated reasons, starting with COVID-19.  But underlying them is a more structural problem:  the fact that over 60% of global semiconductor manufacturing revenue comes from factories in Taiwan, and a good portion of the rest comes from mainland China.

 

The economists will tell you that shortages happen when demand outpaces supply so fast that producers can't keep up with consumers.  As millions around the world transitioned to working from home, the demand for more laptops, webcams, and associated equipment soared.  At the same time, manufacturers were dealing with COVID-19 shutdowns and absent workers, although Taiwan managed to keep their total number of reported coronavirus cases under 1000—until about a month ago, when their numbers shot up to the current figure of 12,000, according to the Worldometer coronavirus website.  This does not bode well for the near-term future of chipmaking.

 

So even if semiconductor manufacturing had continued at its normal pace, we would have seen prices rise and supplies shrink simply because of increased demand. 

 

Ravenscraft then turns to the fact that the Trump administration in particular enacted policies that are consistent with trying to start a trade war with China.  The details are complicated, but the net effect on availability of chips was negative.

 

And because semiconductors are some of the most complexly-engineered things on the planet, you can't just stop making one kind of processor one day and start making a different kind the next day.  Millions of coordinated process steps, masks, and other details have to change for yield on a new product to rise into the profitable range, and that can take weeks or months.  Here in Texas where our Big Freeze in February knocked out power to a Samsung semiconductor plant in Austin for over a week, it took them on the order of two months just to get things going again.  So chipmaking is not a turn-on-a-dime industry.  Sudden increases in demand cause big problems with supplies that can last months or longer, as these seem to have done.

 

Looking at the big picture, the semiconductor industry has become as essential to the world economy as oil or even food.  People can't eat chips (not the silicon kind, anyway), but they are nonetheless vital to the way we live now.  I have dabbled in the history of technology from time to time, and now and then the occasion arises to determine the relative importance of a given technology to a given culture at a given time.  The following thought experiment is useful:  Suppose everyone woke up one morning and the technology in question had vanished off the face of the earth.  How disruptive would that be to normal life?

 

Some technologies would not be especially missed:  dental floss, for example.  But as we found out in Texas last February, electric power is pretty necessary to normal life for most of us, and if all the semiconductor chips vanished out of our devices one fine morning, we would be arguably worse off than we were without electric power.  Cars newer than 1960s models wouldn't run, nobody's phones would work, businesses from mom-and-pop stores to Amazon would freeze up instantly and lose most of their records (how's them apples?), and, well, it's starting to sound like some descriptions of the consequences of an electromagnetic pulse that would result from detonating a nuclear weapon above the atmosphere, only worldwide.

 

Fortunately, short of divine intervention, we won't have to suffer theglobal disappearance of semiconductor technology.  But this little thought experiment shows how crucial it is to modern life, and how even a mild thing like a chip shortage can have extensive and surprising ripple effects.

 

The other factor that makes a chip shortage serious is the rapid pace at which new products overtake old ones.  This is largely a circumstance of the industry's own making, because anybody with billions of dollars tied up in a semiconductor manufacturing plant has to keep it running at a profit or lose their investment.  So markets have to be found for all those chips, and that is why you have to turn loose of your old electronics even if you like it, because the rest of the world moves beyond it and you have to keep up or else just quit.  And sometimes "old" means only a year or two. 

 

Of course, the manufacturers would say that they're just trying to make their customers happy, and there is some truth to that.  But let me bring in a different voice from a different tradition.

 

Paul Kingsnorth is an environmental activist and writer who, after thirty years of activism and dabbling in Buddhism and Wicca, recently joined the Romanian Orthodox Church.  As an activist, he saw problems with the way the world was going, as he puts it in the June/July issue of First Things:  "We would remake Earth, down to the last nanoparticle, to suit our desires, which we now called 'needs.'"  Needs for semiconductors, for instance.

 

But after his conversion, he views Christianity as the history of man's rebellion against God.  The global issues he was so focused on formerly—climate change, economic inequality, and so on—he no longer views as problems to be solved, but as spiritual issues, consequences of sin.  Toward the end of his article, he writes "In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell.  And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through?"

 

The chip shortage looks like at most an annoying interruption of what we have come to regard as business as usual.  But what if COVID-19 and its consequences form an opportunity for us, individually and corporately, to ask some questions about the whole set of assumptions that underlie that business?  Maybe business as usual isn't where we should be trying to go.  But that is a discussion for another day.

 

Sources:  Eric Ravenscraft's article "Here's Why Gadgets Are So Hard to Get Right Now" was published on the Wired website on June 12, 2021 at https://www.wired.com/story/heres-why-gadgets-are-so-hard-to-get-right-now/.  I also quoted from Paul Kingsnorth's article "The Cross and the Machine" on pp. 35-41 of the June/July 2021 issue of First Things.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Censoring the Censors? Florida's Anti-Censorship Law

 

On May 24, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill designed to stop social media firms from censoring free speech.  At least that's what the governor's website claims it does.  Two big-tech industry groups, Netchoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), sued the state of Florida in early June over the legislation, which is scheduled to take effect on July 1.  What exactly does the law do, and why are organizations such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google sponsoring a lawsuit to halt it?

 

People of certain political persuasions need not look far for motivations to pass such a law.  Following the assault on the U. S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year, the alternative social networking service Parler, which attracted users that had been suspended from mainstream media such as Twitter, found itself without Amazon's hosting service and cut off from Apple's and Google's facilities as well.  And former president Donald Trump is still banned from mainstream social media.  These are just the tips of an iceberg of censorship that some people view as politically motivated.

 

The bill signed by Gov. DeSantis would provide for fines of up to $250,000 for "willfully deplatforming" political candidates, and also allows private citizens to sue firms committing such indiscretions as well.  Social media firms cannot de-platform any statewide or local political candidate, or else they face penalties of up to $250,000 a day. 

 

The Netchoice-CCIA suit alleges that this law constitutes a "smorgasbord of constitutional violations," according to an article in National Review.  If allowed to take effect, the suit says it will impede the social media firms' ability to "protect their services, users, advertisers, and the public at large from a variety of harmful, offensive, or unlawful material." 

 

Just to take a hypothetical extreme case, you have to admit that the CCIA suit has a point.  Suppose for the sake of argument that a Florida candidate for statewide office chose to post some child pornography in a political blog on Facebook.  Leaving aside the bad judgment on the part of the candidate, Facebook would be caught between a rock and a hard place.  If they deplatform the candidate, they would face fines from the State of Florida.  But if they leave the post alone, they will be an accomplice to numerous other violations of federal and state laws. 

 

On the other hand, the law is part of a growing trend for legislatures and governments in general to put the screws to Big Tech in various ways.  Now that social media carry the bulk of public discourse (as opposed to the legacy media of radio, television, and newspapers), they find themselves walking a fine line between suppression of free speech and toleration of harmful content.

 

The Florida law is only the latest in the history of attempts on the part of states to suppress or control mass media.  Lousiana saw a more blatant effort when Huey Long, who formally left the governor's office in 1932 to be a U. S. senator but effectively kept running the state anyway, passed a steep tax on large-circulation Lousiana newspapers, calling it a "tax on lying."  In the present case, ironically, Florida is not penalizing the media for what they're saying, but for what they're not saying, or rather for what they're not allowing certain parties to do or say on their platforms. 

 

This issue can be viewed as a contest between rival goods:  the good of free speech for political discourse and democratic government, and the good of avoiding what, in the phrases of the CCIA suit, is "harmful, offensive, or unlawful."  And the unfortunate thing is that the parties to the conflict have little or no agreement as to exactly what these rival goods are.

 

Take the concept of free speech.  Back at a time, say sixty or eighty years ago, when there was a general public consensus that airing political views of almost any stripe, from theocratic conservatism to anarchic Communism, was to be tolerated for the good of the republic, there was also a general public consensus that hard-core pornography should be banned from publicly accessible media, including the U. S. Postal Service.  Gradually, however, the concept of free speech was expanded to encompass what earlier generations would regard as pornography, and today there is a multibillion-dollar worldwide online trade in porn, which not only effectively enslaves thousands who are involved in producing it but corrupts those who watch it.

 

Unfortunately, there is today no general consensus on what sort of content is harmful, offensive, or even unlawful.  If everything I think is harmful or offensive was banned from the Internet, the Internet would be a much smaller enterprise.  Yet when social-media companies hire hundreds of young people and give them whatever training they receive to identify undesirable content that violates the firm's "standards," and remove the content if necessary, they  exercise personal judgment which inevitably turns out to be inconsistent, intermittent, and subjective. 

 

Of course, important decisions such as banning Donald Trump are undertaken with the knowledge and approval of the firm's leadership, but my point is that the diffuse and multifaceted nature of social media means that whatever restrictions they try to apply will also be diffuse, multifaceted, and guaranteed to make somebody unhappy.

 

I don't have a good solution to this problem.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social-media firms from being sued as though they themselves originated the stuff that their users post.  If we began treating social-media companies as common carriers like the telecommunications firms, and insisted that they let anybody post anything, we would need a more effective legal means to go after the individuals who would exploit this new freedom than what we now have.  But if we simply shrug our shoulders and let Mark Zuckerberg and his friends suppress anything they don't like, we have handed the keys of democracy to a bunch of billionaires, and that is likely to turn out badly too.  Stay tuned.

 

Sources:  The National Review article "Groups Representing Tech Companies Sue Florida over DeSantis Anti-Censorship Bill" appeared on June 2 at https://www.nationalreview.com/news/groups-representing-tech-companies-sue-florida-over-desantis-anti-censorship-bill/.  I referred to Gov. DeSantis's website description of the bill at https://www.flgov.com/2021/05/24/governor-ron-desantis-signs-bill-to-stop-the-censorship-of-floridians-by-big-tech/, and Elizabeth Kolbert's 2006 article on Huey Long in The New Yorker at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/06/12/the-big-sleazy, from which I took the quotation about a tax on lying.

 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Why Instagram for Kids?

 

Depends on who you ask. 

 

If you ask Instagram, which is part of Facebook, which is run by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, you will hear things like the following.  Despite our posted lower age limit of 13 for the regular Instagram image-sharing service, we know a lot of kids younger than that are lying to get on it.  We would prefer to create a new service designed just for pre-teenagers so we can customize it with parental controls and so on, and bring Instagram to those younger users who currently have to lie to use it.

 

If you ask the attorneys general of forty U. S. states, they will cite sociological studies that link social-media use to depression, anxiety, and bullying in young people.  Following the news in March that Instagram was contemplating this new service, the National Association of Attorneys General got together and issued a letter  in May to Mark Zuckerberg asking him not to do this thing.  That's as far as the letter went—they didn't say what they'd do if he went ahead and did it anyway.  But the implication is clear that lawsuits might be in the offing if the proposed new service causes problems in its targeted age group.

 

Way back in the dark ages of social media, shortly after 9/11/2001, I wrote an article speculating on the ethical implications of electronic communication.  The immediate context was the fact that during the Twin Towers attack that day, the radio systems that first responders were relying on to coordinate their uniquely challenging rescue efforts largely broke down.  At the time, I concluded that, other things being equal, more communication among human beings was better than less.  But back then, Facebook wasn't even a gleam in Zuckerberg's eye, and hardly anybody imagined the huge economic and social forces that growth of social media would lead to.

 

Some questions are like diamond drills.  If you keep asking them they just keep going deeper and deeper and sometimes reveal unexpected things.  One of these questions is the innocent-sounding, "What's the point?"

 

If you ask Mark Zuckerberg that question about Instagram for those under 13, I think the bottom-line answer must be to make more money.  There is a thin veneer of public service that social media likes to coat their enterprises with.  And there is justification for this veneer:  billions of people (yes, billions) successfully use social media for largely innocent activities such as keeping in touch with relatives and friends.  Because the vast majority of users do not pay for the service, Facebook and Instagram have to manipulate things so that their advertisers reach their intended audiences.  The user is the product and the advertiser is the customer.

 

Right off the bat, that step has strayed into a swamp that philosopher Immanuel Kant warned us against.  I am told that he said in effect, "Don't treat people as means, but only as ends."  That is to say, using people solely as a means to something else is wrong. 

 

Of course, every business enterprise in the world could be accused of such a thing, and so providers of goods and services should not treat their customers only as a means to make money.  And if Instagram goes ahead with its plans for the under-13 crowd, I'm sure they will make efforts to protect their users against some of the worst abuses that social media can be used for:  stalking, sexual predation, bullying, and other criminal activity.  But if they don't make money at it, they will have failed, because they are not a charity—they are a publicly-owned profit-making organization, and the point of such organizations is to make money.

 

There is a reason that Instagram currently says its users must be 13 or over.  Historically, at least within the last century or so, children were regarded as especially worthy of protection and special safeguards.  Just to give you an antiquated example, I attended the Fort Worth Independent School District from 1960 to 1972.  At that time, both teachers and parents made strenuous efforts to keep commercial enterprises and advertising out of public schools.  The only exception to this that I can recall is that in grade school, the teachers offered to let us practice saving money, and gave us little envelopes with the name of the First National Bank of Fort Worth printed on them.  That's it:  no TV, no sponsored commercial films, no nothing. 

 

I am told that things are different now.  History may judge our time as a peculiarly child-hostile period.  The ideal of a child being raised to adulthood by his two biological parents—one male, one female—is receding into the past as other situations arise that are more convenient to the parents, maybe, but shortchange the kids.  And I need not mention abortion as the ultimate child-hostile policy, but I did anyway.  In an era of declining birthrates, more people than ever are asking "What's the point?" about the whole business of childbearing in the first place, and coming up with a negative answer.

 

For a time, advertising on children's TV shows was also controversial, but that battle has receded into the distant past as TV itself turns into a bewildering array of shape-melding forms that anybody can access, even the baby in the nursery.  Short of getting laws passed that prohibit Instagram for kids under 13, even the state attorneys general can't do much more than write letters saying that they won't be happy if Instagram goes ahead with its plans.

 

Rather than further erode the influence and authority of parents over their children by taking even more of the child's attention away from the live human beings who care for them and using them as a means of profit as well as providing a dubious service that so far they have done fine without, I hope that Zuckerberg listens to the attorneys general and declares the under-13 set sacrosanct from further intrusions by his firm.  But to do so would indicate that he is getting a different answer to the question of what the point is than he's gotten up to now.  And so far, he's given no sign of doing so.

 

Sources:  I referred to a report on the Instagram plans at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/facebook-instagram-for-children-under-13 and the reaction of the attorneys general at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2021/may/11/instagram-for-kids-the-social-media-site-no-one-asked-for.  Their letter to Zuckerberg can be found at https://ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/naag_letter_to_facebook_-_final.pdf.  I heard about this issue on the Drew Mariani Show, a feature of the Relevant Radio network.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Pros and Cons of Conning Pros

 

Raising funds for a new engineering venture always brings with it the temptation to promise more than you can deliver.  At the very least, that seems to be what has happened with a Texas-based outfit called at various times Wireless Power, Texzon Technologies, and Viziv Technologies, which is currently in bankruptcy proceedings.  As I have had very peripheral dealings with the organization personally, perhaps I should tell the story from my perspective.

 

Five or six years ago, I was driving along a connecting road south of Dallas, Texas, when I saw a curious structure sitting out in a pasture half a mile or so north of the road.  It was a sort of tower consisting of a tall, narrow sheet-metal box, a square girdered column on top of that, and a rounded hemispherical metal dingus to top it off, the whole thing being a couple of hundred feet tall (60 meters).  It wasn't a windmill, I didn't think it was some kind of weird artwork, but it wasn't any kind of antenna I was familiar with either, so when I got back home I did some Internet digging.

 

Turns out it was constructed by an outfit calling itself Viziv Technologies.  Their website is still up as of this writing, and being interested mainly in the technical aspects of what they were doing, I studied it in some detail.

 

In a sentence, they seemed to be trying to revive Nikola Tesla's old dream of power transmission without wires.  Among the many wild promises Tesla made in his lifetime that he fell short of delivering, wireless power transmission was one of the more striking ones.  In experiments in Colorado Springs around 1900, Tesla claimed to have developed a system that would allow him to send useful amounts of electric power indefinitely long distances without wires.  But the most authoritative biography of Tesla by historian of technology W. Bernard Carlson says that the longest-distance transmission Tesla actually documented in his experiments there was sixty feet (18 meters). 

 

Around the same time, a couple of German physicists named Arnold Sommerfeld and Jonathan Zenneck were working out the mathematics of how electromagnetic waves (including the kind of waves Tesla was using) followed the moderately-conducting surface of the earth.  The mathematics is rather difficult, but by 1920 it was well understood.  Local AM radio stations use what amounts to a Sommerfeld-Zenneck surface wave to reach their listeners.  Of the fifty kilowatts or so that goes into the most powerful AM stations in the U. S., the vast majority of that power winds up heating the soil, and only a few milliwatts here and there is delivered to receivers. 

 

The Viziv folks were reviving Tesla's dream of transmitting power without wires, but in their website's discussion of Zenneck waves, groundbreaking experiments, and promising results, they never mentioned the question that Tesla never answered satisfactorily about his idea:  if anybody can get free power just by putting up an antenna, how are you going to bill for it, even assuming it works?  But the Tesla connection explained the odd resemblance of the top of the Dallas tower to Tesla's grandest folly, a giant wooden tower with a hemispherical dome built in Wardenclyffe, Long Island, which was demolished during World War I to prevent German submarines from using it as a landmark.

 

A few months after I saw the tower, an electrical engineering student of mine contacted me for some advice.  He was thinking of interviewing with a company called Viziv Technologies, and would I take a look at their website and tell me what I thought?  I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was probably some version of the standard advice I give to every student wanting to join a startup:  "Do it while you're young and without a lot of obligations.  It probably won't go anywhere, but you might have some fun and it will be a good learning experience no matter what happens."

 

Something or other made me look into how Viziv Technologies was doing a month or so ago, and the answer is, not too well.  Google it now and you get a lot of bankruptcy-filing documents.  It seems that after inducing investors to put a lot of money into salaries, equipment, the tower, and other expensive stuff, the company failed to deliver on its promises.  To be fair, they were not putting all their investment eggs in the wireless-power basket.  They were also talking about low-frequency communications and location services and so on.  But unless they had discovered something that Sommerfeld and Zenneck and everybody else doing electromagnetics since 1910 had missed, there wasn't anything remarkable about Zenneck waves except the fact that most non-EE types had never heard of them. 

 

According to one comment posted on a physics discussion page, a couple of brothers named James and Kenneth Corum were the techno-whizzes behind Viziv.  These people have undoubted technical credentials, and have gone on record as doing investigations and reproductions of some of Tesla's most interesting experiments, including one in which he claimed to have made ball lightning.  But even smart people can be hoodwinked by those who wish to use them to acquire gains that turn out to be ill-gotten in retrospect.  The comment claimed that the technology was "demonstrated to work with great efficiency" (whatever that means), and then somebody rooked the Corums out of their intellectual property and forced the company into bankruptcy so they could grab the patents for themselves.

 

Not knowing which side of the fence the writer of that comment stands on, it's hard to say what really happened.  Another interpretation that I personally lean toward is that the business people in charge were using the Corums as science oracles to talk to non-technical investors, who pretty much had to take their word for whatever they said.  Something made the company go into bankruptcy, but it would take a forensic accountant and an investigative reporter weeks to figure out exactly what. All I can conclude is that the people putting in money ran out of patience when some promises were not fulfilled, and turned off the cash spigot. 

 

It's ironic that a company based on ideas that Tesla first promoted without fully understanding the math behind what he was doing has apparently ended up where Tesla did:  without credibility in the technical or the business communities, and broke.  Viziv Technologies may rise again, but at this point, I wouldn't put any money on it—or in it.

 

Sources:  The Viziv Technologies website itself is at https://vizivtechnologies.com/.  A photo of the only light bulb lit by Tesla's experiments at a verified distance from the transmitter (sixty feet) appears on p. 290 of W. Bernard Carlson's Tesla:  Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press, 2013).  Numerous open-access sources about the Viziv bankruptcy are on the Internet, such as the chronological one at https://www.docketbird.com/court-cases/Viziv-Technologies-LLC/txnb-3:2020-bk-32554.    I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Johnathan Zenneck and Arnold Sommerfeld.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Out of Gas: The Colonial Pipeline Shutdown and U. S. Defense

 

On Friday, May 7, hackers attacked the computer systems of Colonial Pipeline, which operates a major gasoline pipeline that brings gasoline and jet fuel from Houston refineries up through the southeastern United States as far as New Jersey.  Out of concern that the hackers might have obtained data enabling them to do physical damage to their facilities, the pipeline operators shut the pipeline down while it was still under their control.  This may have saved the machinery from damage, but it produced a severe regional fuel shortage that affected everything from flights out of Atlanta to drivers' vacation plans.  As of today (Sunday May 16), the pipeline was fully restarted, but the ripple effects of the shutdown meant 88% of Washington, D. C. gas stations were out of gas at one point over the weekend.

 

This was a ransomware attack by a group calling itself DarkSide with reported links to Russia.  According to Bloomberg News, Colonial Pipeline paid DarkSide about $5 million in bitcoin for software to unlock their systems, only to find that it ran so slowly that they ended up restoring service without its help. 

 

This is by far the most serious ransomware attack ever mounted on a U. S.-based facility, and should become a turning point in our response to this sort of attack.  Although I've stated the following position before in relation to other ransomware attacks, it bears repeating now that millions of people are going without gas, including many in Washington, D. C., and are presumably paying attention to the problem.

 

Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution of the United States reads as follows, in full:  "The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence."

 

The key word of present interest in this section is "invasion."  An online law dictionary defines invasion as "[a]n encroachment upon the rights of another; the incursion of an army for conquest or plunder."  The Constitution was written at a time when messages traveled fastest by horseback or sailing ship.  It is safe to say that the current technological facts of instant global Internet access to a domestic firm's private infrastructure were not in the minds of the drafters of the Constitution. 

 

But notions of justice and international relations were, and the drafters recognized that a federal government that could not successfully defend its constituent states against invasion, as defined above, was not worth organizing.  So they put words in the Constitution that gave the federal government the responsibility of defending the states against invasion, and in Article 1, section 8, they also gave Congress the power to "provide for the calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions."  There's that word "invasion" again.

 

Pardon what may look like a constitutional detour, but what happened to Colonial Pipeline this month amounts to invasion and plunder by agents of a foreign power.  The DarkSide criminals may not formally be agents of the Russian government, but they operate with its approval or at least without its hindrance. 

 

Suppose a bunch of Canadians armed with tanks and machine guns charged across the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and took over the headquarters of Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, capturing their main computer center and demanding $5 million in ransom to turn it loose.  This would quite properly be regarded as a foreign invasion, and no one would raise a finger to object to using whatever military force was necessary to repel such an invasion.

 

I submit that what happened to Colonial Pipeline is morally equivalent to my hypothetical invasion by Canadians.  The technological details are different, but the responsibility of the U. S. government to defend those within its borders from invasion and plunder is something that the Founders intended it to do. 

 

So what has the federal government in fact done?  Hardly anything—a few warnings not to try keeping gasoline in plastic bags, a few adjustments of shipping regulations to allow more ships to land gasoline from abroad, and that's about it. 

 

There is a well-known saying that generals always prepare for the last war, not the one they're fighting now.  And that is certainly true in this case.  According to one source, the U. S. military has over 200,000 troops stationed abroad in over 170 countries.  The vast majority of these are conventional soldiers ready to shoot bullets and drop bombs, and certainly, bullets and bombs haven't gone out of fashion.  But among the more advanced criminal element, it's much more chic to keep your fingers clean while typing code that will shut down half of the gasoline going to the U. S. East Coast, and make $5 million in exchange for some software that doesn't even work. 

 

Congress is reportedly drafting legislation to do something about this sort of thing.  That is where the process should start, but it's clear that a vast reorganization and re-prioritizing of the entire domestic and foreign military establishment is called for.  Cyberwarfare is where it's at now.  Metaphorically speaking, the Canadians have been rioting through the entire country for years now, and all we have done is have vague discussions about the future of military combat.  Don't people get it?  It's happening now.  The fact that nobody was killed in the Colonial hack is due more to the foresight of the pipeline operators than to anyone else, as an out-of-control pipeline can do unimaginable amounts of damage. 

 

But private companies should not have to shoulder by themselves the burden of protecting their facilities against foreign invasion and plunder.  That's one of the most basic services of the federal government, and so far it is failing miserably in its job. 

 

The gasoline shortage Washington now enjoys has fallen equally on Republicans and Democrats.  We can only hope that they will unite to make major lasting changes in the structure and priorities of the U. S. military so that we can once more be secure in our persons and property against the depredations of foreign invasion, including ransomware attacks.

 

Sources:  I referred to a Reuters article at https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/colonial-pipeline-ramps-up-us-seeks-emerge-fuel-crunch-2021-05-14/.  I also referred to https://thelawdictionary.org/invasion/, the Wikipedia article "Colonial pipeline cyberattack," and obtained the figure on U. S. military deployments abroad from https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/explained-the-us-military-s-global-footprint-45029#:~:text=In%202017%2C%20the%20Defense%20Manpower,deployed%20across%20170%20countries%20worldwide.

 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Mexico City Metro Train Crash: Structural Problems?

 

Around 10:30 Monday night, May 3, a train on Mexico City's newest Metro Line 12 was traveling east on an elevated portion of the track from the Tezonco to the Olivos stations.  Line 12 was fraught with problems during and after construction in 2014 and 2015.  Several sections of the line were shut down for repairs in 2014, and some citizens complained that the line was further damaged by the 2017 Puebla earthquake.

 

Just as the last two cars of the train were passing over one of the Y-shaped concrete support structures that hold up the girders supporting the tracks, the support structure failed.  This caused the girders to collapse to the freeway median underneath the track, and dropped the train cars some 5 meters to the pavement.  A total of 24 people died either in the wreck itself or shortly afterwards, and 79 people were hospitalized.  It was the worst Metro accident in over forty years, and the Mexican government declared three days of mourning for victims of the disaster.

 

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has invited a Norwegian accident-investigation agency to look into the causes of the tragedy.  And definitive answers will have to await the agency's work, which may take months or years.  But there are some things we can say already about what happened.

 

Every engineered artifact has both a physical aspect and a human-relations aspect.  The physical aspect is simply the thing itself:  in this case, the concrete supports and girders that failed.  The human-relations aspect (an inadequate phrase, but I can't think of a better one at the moment) is the history of the human organizations, relationships, and interactions involved in the artifact's design and construction.  The human part of the equation is a "structure" that is equally as important as the physical structure it produces.  Both the physical objects and the human-relations history have to be investigated for a complete picture to emerge about how things went wrong and who might be responsible.

 

As every civil engineer knows, concrete is strong in compression but weak under tension.  You can squeeze it and it resists well, but a pure concrete cylinder with no reinforcing bars ("rebar") in it will fail pretty fast if you pull on it.  That is why support structures such as the flat-Y ones that held up Line 12 have to have extensive rebar networks inside them to handle the tensile stress that shows up on the top of the Y, as the pressure of the girders try to stretch the arms outward and downward.

 

I am not a structural engineer and I have exhausted all my knowledge about reinforced concrete in the preceding paragraph.  But people paid to know these things know how to design such structures so that they can withstand both static loads and also the dynamic loads of things like moving trains and earthquakes.

 

Mexico City is one of the most earthquake-prone large metropolitan areas in the world, and one would expect their engineered structures to show evidence of this fact.  Without additional information, I can't say what special precautions have been taken to ensure that the Line 12's support members can withstand earthquakes.  The 2017 Puebla quake had its epicenter near Mexico City and a magnitude of 7.1, and resulted in over 360 fatalities and the collapse of some 40 buildings.  Although the newly-built Line 12 withstood the quake without collapsing, it is an open question whether the quake caused hidden damage to some parts of it.

 

Admittedly, finding internal flaws in concrete structures is a hard thing to do.  Although non-invasive technology such as ultrasonic testing and X-rays can be used, they tend to be either expensive or inconclusive or both.  The only structural test that many civil engineers will accept as conclusive is to stress something until it breaks.  That's fine with small test samples, but it has obvious drawbacks for testing completed structures.

 

Recent research, including some at Texas State University where I teach, has been focused on building "smart structures" that incorporate electronic sensors which can alert engineers to incipient flaws before they get serious enough to threaten the structure's integrity.  If something like this had been installed in the support members on Line 12, it's possible that authorities would have known about the defective support well before it failed, and could have taken steps to repair the defect.

 

But in the absence of smart sensors, the only way to prevent such tragedies as the one that happened on Line 12 last week is to build supports to be strong enough not to fail.  And here is where the human-relations issues come to the fore. 

 

A Reuters article on the accident points out that the portion of Line 12 that collapsed was built by a consortium of a Mexican business empire controlled by the family of famed businessman Carlos Slim and the Mexican division of a French firm.  Large engineering firms can be as good or better than small local firms, and bigness by itself is not a vice.  But governments and businesses in Mexico have been known to host corruption problems. And any time a public work such as a Metro line spectacularly fails, it is time to scrutinize the history of how the work was contracted, how it was inspected, and whether any shortcuts or graft were involved. 

 

As the contracting firm itself pointed out, it is premature to assess any blame or jump to any final conclusions regarding the cause of this multiple-fatality accident.  And Mayor Sheinbaum may be doing the right thing to call in well-respected experts from another country to perform the investigation, if local or federal inspection services are not up to the job or could not be expected to deliver an unbiased report.  So we will simply have to wait for the investigators to draw their conclusions.  In the meantime, Line 12 remains idle and thousands of Mexico City commuters have to find another way to get to work.  But at least they can be reasonably sure they'll get there.

 

Sources:  I referred to a Reuters article " Mexico promises justice after metro train line collapse kills 24" that appeared on May 6 at https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexico-vows-probe-into-terrible-metro-collapse-says-too-soon-point-fingers-2021-05-04/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles "Mexico City Metro overpass collapse" and "2017 Puebla earthquake."

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Sun Sets on Horizon: Faulty IT System Spreads Misery in UK's Postal Service

 

Suppose you enjoy a secure government job at which you work diligently, and you have advanced to the managerial position of a sub-postmaster in Post Office Ltd, the quasi-public organization that provides postal services in most of the UK.  Then your organization installs a new computerized system called Horizon that promises to eliminate a lot of paperwork accounting and make things easier for everybody.  But soon after it is installed, you find that your accounts are not matching up with what the computer says they are.  You bring these discrepancies to the attention of your supervisors, but instead of looking into the problem, they accuse you of stealing the deficit funds, amounting to many thousands of pounds in some cases.

 

Something like this happened to dozens of UK sub-postmasters over the last two decades.  Every time the computer indicated an unexplained deficit, the Post Office concluded that the sub-postmasters were responsible, and threatened many of them with prison terms if they didn't make up the deficit personally.  Some did, mortgaging their houses and even going bankrupt, but others went to jail anyway.  The accusations of theft led to psychological problems, broken marriages, and at least one reported suicide.

 

Meanwhile, the Post Office authorized an outside agency called Second Sight to conduct an independent investigation after it failed on its own to find out what was really going on.  One day before Second Sight was to publish its report in 2015, the Post Office canceled the investigation, ordered the agency to destroy its files, and issued a public statement denying that there were any systemic problems. 

 

Things went on like this until December of 2019, when the Post Office began to admit publicly that it was wrong in many of the cases.  And in March, the UK's Court of Appeals quashed 39 convictions involving Horizon errors.  This scandal, which has been called the largest miscarriage of justice in the UK for many decades, will have legal repercussions for years.  But now that things are starting to be remedied, how did they get so bad in the first place?

 

I once knew a woman who had worked her way up to being postmaster of a small New England town.  She enjoyed her job until one day when about $20,000 of stamps turned up missing.  To this day I believe she was not guilty of stealing the stamps, but the U. S. Postal Service held her personally responsible for the loss, and when we left New England for Texas around the time Horizon was being installed in 2000, she was still paying off that debt. 

 

I'm not sure what it is about postal-service managers that makes them jump to the conclusion that any financial discrepancy is automatically the fault of the local person in charge, but that's certainly what happened in the case of the Horizon system.  The 2015 investigation report, which was eventually obtained by news organizations, said that Horizon's communications links were so bad that an average of 12,000 communication failures happened every year.  Horizon was developed by Fujitsu in the late 1990s mainly as a way to automate welfare benefit payments, which were then handled through the quasi-governmental Post Office branches.  The government's Benefits Agency then pulled out, leaving Fujitsu to finish the job on its own. 

 

If one reads between the lines of the reports on this scandal, it seems that the errors happened like this:  A transaction involving cash takes place at a remote location, but there is a communications glitch between the remote station and the central accounting office.  Money goes out from the remote kiosk but doesn't get reported to the main system.  Evidently, the system was not designed to do checks or other actions that would identify such dropouts and correct them.  When the physical cash was counted at the end of the reporting period, naturally it came up short.  Despite the fact that the sub-postmaster in charge might know that the machine was giving out cash but not reporting it to headquarters, his bosses believed the machine, not him, and accused him of theft. 

 

Multiply this scenario by a few dozen cases a year, and you have a real nightmare.  Fortunately, the nightmare is drawing to a close, but there is no way to recover the reputations and well-being of those who lost both when they were falsely accused of stealing. 

 

Synergism can be good or bad, and in this case it was terrible.  You had a badly designed hardware and software system that was prone to errors, to begin with.  And then it was installed by managers whose ignorance of technology led them to view computers as a sort of oracle of God:  the machine can't be wrong, so it must be those pesky humans that are stealing the money in devious ways we can't detect.  And what is worse, once the management had taken that position, the longer time went on the harder it would be to admit they were wrong, and maybe all these prosecutions were a mistake after all.  So, unwisely but understandably, the managers dug in their heels, even going to the extent of quashing the report that revealed they were wrong.

 

The people responsible for this fiasco may or may not pay a penalty for their coverups and denials.  Groups of present and former sub-postmasters are continuing to seek legal redress for their unjust convictions, and this may involve civil lawsuits that would penalize the managers who made bad decisions. 

 

But regardless of what happens in the future, engineers everywhere can take this scandal as a bad example of how not to do an IT system.  It is a remarkable thing that, at least in the U. S., there have been relatively few instances of internal failures in the money-machine networks run by banks, as opposed to attacks by outsiders.  Commercial banks, being historically conservative institutions, apparently insisted from the outset on multiple checks and extreme robustness in their money-handling networks, so that even in the face of communications interruptions and power failures, they always know how much money they have and can keep track of it without loss. 

 

Fortunately, the UK Post Office has announced that they are replacing Horizon with a cloud-based system that should work much better.  For the sake of its customers and especially for the well-being of its sub-postmasters, let's hope they're right.

 

Sources:  I referred to articles on the scandal in The Verge at https://www.theverge.com/2021/4/23/22399721/uk-post-office-software-bug-criminal-convictions-overturned, from the BBC at https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56718036, and the Wikipedia article on Horizon (IT system).  I thank Michael Cook of Mercatornet.com for bringing this scandal to my attention.