Monday, August 28, 2006

When Is A Gallon Not a Gallon? When You're Buying Gas

On a hot August day in Texas, you notice your big pickup is nearly running on fumes, so you drive into a gas station where the price is $2.69 a gallon. You fill up the tank with 35 gallons of gas. Simple math tells you that's going to cost you $94.15. You're not happy about it, but at least you know across the country people are paying something close to the same for gas, so you go inside and get ready to pay. You tell the clerk behind the counter what pump it was, and she says, "Okay, $94.15 plus the $1.14 surcharge, that's $95.29."

"Hey, what's this surcharge business?"

"That's the heat surcharge. Any time the gas is hotter than sixty degrees, we get to charge extra for the same amount of gas."

You think something unprintable, but you've been brought up to be polite to ladies, so all you say is, "Well, I'll pay it, but this is the last time I'm buying gas here."

"Doesn't matter. They all do it."

Sound crazy? Well, it isn't. It happens every day, all across the country. Only the surcharge is a hidden one, and perfectly legal, so the sales clerks don't talk about it. As an article in the Aug. 27 Kansas City Star describes, if you buy gas in the U. S. that is hotter than sixty degrees F—and as a recent U. S. government study shows, that is most of us in the warmer parts of the country—you don't get what you think you're paying for. Here's how it works.

Each molecule of gasoline provides a certain amount of energy to your car's engine. What you're really buying when you pay for gas is energy, and so you'd think that the fairest way to charge for gas is so much money for so many molecules. Well, counting molecules is not too easy, so long ago it was decided that gasoline would be sold by the gallon, since measuring volume is simple and accurate.

The only trouble with that is that gasoline expands when it gets warmer. That means the same number of molecules take up more room at higher temperatures. If you have thirty-five gallons of gas at a temperature of sixty degrees F and warm it up to eighty degrees F, it's still a liquid. But it expands to occupy a volume of 35.42 gallons. Same number of molecules, same amount of energy—but a larger volume. And if you come along and buy 35 gallons of warm gas when it's eighty degrees, you pay the same money, but you get less gas (fewer molecules, less energy) than if it was at sixty degrees.

Petroleum engineers knew all about this decades ago, so they agreed on a standard temperature of 60 F for measuring volumes. And in the bulk transactions among refiners, pipeline operators, and wholesalers, you can bet that they take this expansion into account. In Canada, where the gas that's sold is on average colder than 60 F, an enterprising inventor went around to gasoline retailers and pointed out that when they sold cold gas, they were giving their customers more than they legally had to. So now nearly every gas pump in Canada compensates for temperature and delivers slightly less gas than it used to, for the same price on the pump screen. And the retailers happily paid the inventor for his idea, since they now make more money on each gallon of cold gas.

Nobody that the Star reporter talked to would admit it, but the reason temperature-compensated gasoline sales haven't spread to the U. S. is probably because the retailers would lose money instead of making money.

Engineering ethics is about experts who use their specialized knowledge for the good of their employers and society in general. Here is a clear case where an obscure technical effect is taking billions of dollars a year away from consumers. Engineers know about it, but the law permits it. As long as a gas pump delivers one gallon with a certain accuracy, it gets the stamp of approval from the local weights and measures authority and there is nothing illegal going on. But all that is legal is not moral, and the example of Canada shows that the technical fix for the problem is available at a cost that would not drive gas stations out of business.

Is this the worst problem you'll run into today? If it is, you're having a pretty good day. But it's real, and as gas prices go even higher, any changes in a direction that would improve matters would be welcome. Sooner or later, some clever advertising executive may think of a way to turn temperature-compensated gas sales into a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, logic does not play a large role in advertising, and the campaign to get this idea across would have to be very well planned. Another alternative is to change the laws regulating retail gas sales to require all gas to be sold with temperature compensation. The effect of this would be to make prices slightly lower in the summer and higher in winter, which might do something to offset the annual rise caused by summer driving. The prospects of either happening are not good. But until retailers start selling gas with the price compensated for temperature, at least now you know what you're paying for—which is not what it seems to be.

Sources: The original Kansas City Star article is at A method of figuring out what temperature does to the volume of gasoline is available from the Ohio Department of Transportation at

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lithium Laments

Right now, Michael Dell is probably wishing he'd never heard of lithium. After Dell Inc. recalled over four million laptop batteries on Aug. 14 in the largest consumer-electronics recall ever, the New York Times sent out a photographer to Lake Mead to get a picture of one Thomas Forqueran looking at the gutted and smoky interior of his pickup truck. He had stored a Dell laptop in the glove box next to some ammo, and when the laptop battery caught fire, the ammo went too. Fortunately, Mr. Forqueran was not in the truck at the time.

The culprit in this case was a faulty lithium battery manufactured by Sony. Why is it that lithium batteries are so dangerous? Why did the National Transportation Safety Administration prohibit cargoes containing lithium batteries on passenger planes back in 2004, and why was a shipment of lithium batteries in a UPS plane suspected as the cause of a fire last February that destroyed the plane? Basically, for the same reasons that lithium is used in batteries at all.

Batteries store energy in the form of chemical compounds. The more energy you can store in a give size and weight of battery, the longer the battery can power a device such as an iPod or a laptop. Electrochemical reactions with lithium provide more voltage than almost any other single reaction, and lithium is the lightest known metal. For these and other reasons, battery makers have been using lithium in their latest and greatest products.

But for many of the same reasons that make lithium attractive for batteries, it is a nasty element to handle. If you throw pure lithium into water, it will spontaneously catch fire and give off noxious fumes. This makes it hard to battle fires involving lithium, needless to say. Even throwing sand or using CO2 fire extinguishers doesn't work—burying the fire in table salt or lime are about the only things that work. The lithium compounds used in rechargeable batteries are also hazardous, and can catch fire even if slightly contaminated by moisture. Once a lithium battery overheats and starts to burn, it tends to feed on itself as the cell ruptures and the lithium gets into contact with more material it can react with. What apparently happened with the Sony batteries is that a flaw in the manufacturing process left small metal particles in the wrong place. Mechanical stress on the battery once it was installed may have moved these particles around to short out the battery, creating enough heat for it to catch fire.

There are several lessons here. First, as we demand more and more from our portable electronics, we are also asking for more and more energy to be packed into batteries. On the horizon are fuel-cell batteries that run off propane or gasoline. Theoretically, one of these could run your laptop for days between fillups, but then there's the price of gasoline to worry about, not to mention the potential for leaks or spills. So there will be more battery hazards to watch out for if manufacturers don't enforce rigorous quality controls at every step of the way.

Next, it is unclear how long Sony had the manufacturing problem before fires started to occur. As engineer and author Henry Petroski likes to say, engineers often learn a lot more from failure than success. This emphasizes the importance of analyzing failures of products in the field until the engineers know exactly what caused the problem, and exactly how to fix it. But none of that can occur without good communication among vendors, suppliers, repair facilities, salesmen, and others.

This writer recalls an incident he heard about many years ago, when he was working for a large communications company which shall remain nameless. The company made the amplifiers for cable TV systems, metal boxes that hang on telephone poles and keep the cable TV signal strong enough to travel several miles between the "head-end" and the homes that take cable TV service. It seems that after several hundred of these amplifiers were shipped, they all started to fail in the same way. The circuit chip that was the heart of the amplifier was mounted to a metal heat sink, and when the engineers back at the plant opened up the failed amplifiers, they found that somehow the chips had separated from the heat sink, which caused them to burn up.

The engineers had been using this type of chip for some time in other products, and so they went back through the repair records to see if there had been any similar problems earlier. Sure enough, the problem began to show up several years before, but then it seemed to disappear—no more records of that kind of repair. The engineers called up the technician who had signed the failure reports and asked him what had happened at the point when the failures stopped occurring.

"Oh, we kept getting busted amps like that," he replied. "There was just so many of 'em, I got tired of filling out the same old failure report."

One hopes the quality-control system at Sony operates better than that. But any organization is only as good as the people in it, and if only one critical person fails to follow the procedure that others are expecting, the whole system can fail.

We can be glad that there have not been any reported fatalities resulting from flaming Dell laptops. Dell as a company will probably survive this incident. But a safety recall like this can ruin a small or new company's reputation permanently and put it out of business, even if no one is hurt. The daily routines of reliability engineering, quality control, and other related technical and managerial jobs can seem boring or even pointless at times. But like police patrols, they protect the safety and welfare of the public, and negligence in these areas can lead to disaster.

Sources: The New York Times article on the Dell laptop battery recall is at The NTSB notice prohibiting passenger planes from carrying cargoes of lithium batteries is discussed at The UPS plane fire is reported in TG Daily at

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Price of Airline Security

On August 11, we received the unwelcome news that terrorists were planning yet another attack, this one involving US-bound flights from Britain that were targeted for demolition with liquid explosives. Fortunately, authorities rounded up many of the alleged plotters before they could do any damage, but the effects of their plans were felt immediately by thousands of would-be airline passengers whose flights were cancelled or missed because of tightened security checks. The problem of airline security is an interesting one from an engineering ethics point of view, because it brings to the surface matters of safety and expense that otherwise get little attention.

Air travel has not always been a relatively safe way to get from A to B. The primitive state of aviation technology in the 1920s meant that the few commercial passengers who flew back then were undertaking substantial risks. But improvements over the decades have made aviation one of the safest modes of transportation around, if only hazards from accidental crashes due to pilot error and hardware failures are considered. While every design effort has been expended to make planes intrinsically safe, modern commercial (as opposed to military) aircraft were not designed with terrorism in mind. The idea that someone inside the plane would brandish arms or set off a bomb was simply not in the imagination of design engineers until recently.

Now, of course, it is. After the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the only visible change to the structure of commercial aircraft was the presumably bullet-proof steel door that now protects the flight deck from assault from within the cabin. This was an obvious step, and cost the airlines something, but clearly isn't going to solve all of their terrorism problems. Once a person with a reasonably powerful bomb gets on board a commercial airliner, the game is over if the bomb is exploded. There is no practical way to make planes impervious to explosives detonated from within. Flying is a very weight-sensitive business, so the heavy armor required to withstand bomb-force blasts literally won't fly. And so the only way to keep planes from being blown up by terrorists with bombs on board is to keep the bombs off the planes in the first place.

But that isn't free either. Since early terrorist bombs were stowed in luggage, inspection of checked baggage by X-ray was one of the first security measures to be implemented. After the attempted shoe-bombing of an airliner, passengers got used to taking off their shoes for X-ray inspection as well. Now that the latest plot involved liquid explosives, most liquids are now banned from carryon luggage. One almost hates to speculate about these matters in a semi-public forum, but there is always the possibility of a suicide bomber who swallows a time bomb. Not even the most dedicated terrorists have gone to this extent yet, possibly because bomb technology cannot yet put a powerful enough charge into a volume small enough to swallow. But if such an infernal deed is ever done, we can reconcile ourselves to whole-body low-dosage X-rays of all passengers, which would be the ultimate invasion of privacy.

Loss of privacy, delays, inconvenience, and the high cost of inspection machinery are only some of the prices we pay for being able to fly. A company called Ahura is test-marketing a book-size device that can do a chemical analysis of any liquid that you can see, even through glass or plastic bottles. It uses a laser to stimulate vibrations in the molecules of the liquid, which in turn give off light that the device analyzes and interprets in terms of chemical composition. The process, called Raman spectroscopy, has until recently been confined to chemistry research labs. But high demand for security inspections and advances in compact computer and sensor technology have allowed companies like Ahura to develop these devices. Still, they are not cheap. According to an account in Time Magazine, the Ahura unit retails for about $30,000. It will be a while before every airport is equipped with such a device, and in the meantime, even bottled water has become a rarity in the air.

Engineers like to view a problem in enough detail to have a good idea of how design choices will affect the performance of the system in question. In the case of airline security, the system is the whole complex of air travel. The design choices include how much we will pay for increasingly sophisticated security technology on the ground, how much we charge for air travel, how much of the cost of security is borne by the government versus private sources, and (not least important) what kind of research and development we do to prepare for future security problems. This last item is currently being covered, if at all, by small private firms such as Ahura in conjunction with government-sponsored research related to terrorism. It is a well-known fact among researchers that adding the word "terrorism" to a research proposal with almost any conceivable justification increases its likelihood of funding, other things being equal. Whether or not this results in better ideas for anti-terrorism technology is so far an open question.

While the U. S. government has taken steps to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts with the creation of such entities as the Department of Homeland Security, it is not clear that such efforts are coordinated enough or directed well enough to do a good job at not only reacting to, but anticipating, new terrorist threats to airline safety. Most successful crash programs, from the Manhattan Project to the Apollo program, have been coordinated by a single, central authority with a single-minded purpose and enough resources to get the job done. Commercial airline safety differs from those programs in many ways, of course. Millions of ordinary citizens, hundreds of private companies large and small, and international relations all make it a complex picture. But whatever else it is, it is an engineering problem. And a more coordinated and focused effort to make airlines as safe from terrorists as they are now from accidental crashes would be worth whatever we paid for it. Even if I can't carry my soft drink onto the plane for a while.

Sources: The Time Magazine article "A New Way to Detect Liquid Explosives" on Ahura is at,8599,1225412,00.html.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Bribe By Many Other Names

When is a bribe a bribe? When is it a token of appreciation? And when is it a campaign contribution? Finally, why should engineers worry about these questions?

All engineering involves money, and wherever lots of money flows, you can find people who will try to get some in nefarious ways. The news that provokes these thoughts concerns one Brent R. Wilkes, a U. S. defense contractor whose enterprises have included a company that converts paper documents into digital form, and another that offers a noise-suppressing technology for military radio communications. In the nature of things, Mr. Wilkes has undoubtedly hired and paid engineers who work for these companies.

The reason Mr. Wilkes is in the news is that in order to procure defense contracts, he paid over two million dollars in cash and gifts to U. S. Rep. Randy Cunningham of California, who confessed to the bribes in a plea bargain with Federal prosecutors. Rep. Cunningham was sentenced to prison. Mr. Wilkes, for his part, feels that he himself did nothing illegal and was simply playing the game by the rules he learned. Unless a contractor pays for preferential treatment in the form of “earmarks,” according to Mr. Wilkes, he doesn’t stand a chance. The New York Times reports that over 12,000 such earmarks were inserted in this year’s Federal spending bills, amounting to a total of some $64 billion, and the number of earmarks is rising every year. Of course, not every earmark is the result of a bribe, but some clearly were.

Suppose you were an engineer working at one of Mr. Wilkes’ companies. Should this affair bother you? The writer of this blog has received in-kind support (not money) from a research center in Massachusetts that was set up via a funding mechanism that could be considered an earmark, so the question is a personal one. The answer depends on your ideas about how government should work, and what representative democracy really is.

Western democracies trace their roots to ancient Greece, where the Athenian democracy gave rise to the most influential culture the West has ever known. Plato could be called the first (and probably the best) political scientist. In The Republic, he put forward his views on the different types of government and the strengths and weaknesses of each. While it is impossible to know what Plato would think of the government of the United States today, if he were looking at how things are really done, as opposed to how we say they are done, he might well classify it as an oligarchy.

Plato defines an oligarchy as “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.” Although ownership qualifications for voters and poll taxes have been abolished in this country, we now have a system that still requires candidates for state and Federal office to raise millions of dollars, becoming temporarily rich if only for the duration of the campaign. Why? Because without cash, no one can pay for campaign ads. And since it is easier to raise money from rich people than from poor ones, guess who gets special attention at the very least, and occasionally, illegal favors such as Rep. Cunningham granted in the case of the bribes from Mr. Wilkes.

We should distinguish between legal campaign contributions made to a candidate on the one hand, and illegal bribes paid for specific legislative favors on the other hand. Unfortunately, members of Congress don’t always distinguish between the two. The point is, whether legally or illegally, money has come to have a peculiarly loud voice in U. S. government today, overpowering the voices of people who suffer injustice but don’t have money to do anything about it.

Well, what of it? Is that so bad? Plato thinks it is: “. . . in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.” He says that just being rich doesn’t make you wise in the ways of government. All it shows is that you know how to get rich, or at least to keep the riches you inherited. The rich rulers’ “fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.” And “oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and great poverty.” You don’t have to look very far to see both of those effects in action today.

Now, Plato doesn’t say that an oligarchy won’t work. It will, after a fashion, but if you live in an oligarchy, you should get used to certain drawbacks. Less taxes for the rich and extremes of wealth and poverty are two. The rich having virtually all the effective power is another. The worst, he says, is that being poor makes you a kind of non-person, without influence or the hope of justice.

The founders of this country did build in some property qualifications for voters in Federal elections at first. But the wave of Jacksonian democracy that swept through the country in the early nineteenth century did away with most of them, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s abolished poll taxes. At the time, people thought these were good things. They brought the country closer to the ideal enunciated by Lincoln: government of, by, and for the people, not just for some particular favored group with well-funded influence in Washington. Of course, well-funded groups with influence in Washington have been with us always. But the balance between radically egalitarian democracy and highly discriminatory oligarchy has swung back and forth over the years.

Right now, it is swinging pretty heavily toward oligarchy. If you see this as a good thing, or at least an inevitable feature of the way things are done nowadays, then maybe you would not feel a qualm at reading about the adventures of your company’s founder in the realm of bribery. After all, it seems to be only an extreme form of making campaign contributions, and who can draw the line? But if you think bribery and corruption are corrosive to the body politic and need to be fought at every turn, then you won’t be so happy at the news. Maybe you’ll quit and go into politics yourself. The least you can do is vote, and not just for the candidate who runs the most campaign ads, either.

Sources: The New York Times article on Wilkes is at Plato’s The Republic can be found at, and his comments on oligarchy are from Chapter 8. I thank Jeff Bogumil, former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, for drawing my attention to this matter.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Online Gambling in the U. S.: Don't Bet On It

If you log on to today, and your Internet address identifies you as living in the U. S., all you will see besides their colorful logo is the following message:


customer support team

The reason for this is simple: A U. S. District Court in St. Louis has issued a restraining order against BetOnSports PLC, forbidding them to take any bets from U. S. residents. The reason for the court order is a civil case filed by the U. S. Department of Justice to stop the company's U. S. operations. On July 16, the CEO of BetOnSports, David Carruthers, a British citizen, was on his way from London to the company's online operations in Costa Rica by way of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Federal authorities arrested him at the airport. How you view all these goings-on depends on your view of gambling, the Internet, and what is right and wrong about both.

Engineering ethics often deals with the unexpected consequences of a new technology. Most of the time, the surprise comes not for purely technical or scientific reasons alone, but from the ways people find to use or misuse the new development. The designers of the Arpanet, an early predecessor of the Internet, were thinking in terms of Cold War national defense in 1969 when they put together a computer network that they hoped would withstand partial destruction in a nuclear war. I would be surprised to find that the thought of placing bets over their new medium of communication ever entered their minds. But as millions of ordinary people gained access to the Internet, that thought did occur to gamblers, bookies, and "gaming industry" professionals, who set up gambling websites, mostly outside the continental U. S. to avoid state and Federal laws against unauthorized games of chance. But now the Department of Justice seems to believe it can make a good case against one of the highest-volume online betting operations.

As a strong opponent of gambling in any organized form, I hope that Mr. Carruthers' recent experiences make other online gambling outfits think twice about continuing their U. S. operations. In my view, gambling approaches the perfect temptation, as defined by the demon Screwtape in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. The perfect temptation is to entice someone into a trap and give them nothing in return. And most of the time, that's exactly what gamblers get, on individual bets and in the long run. I think it is a shame that most U. S. states have corrupted themselves to the extent of conducting lotteries. Never mind that the profits so gained are used for good purposes, including education. Studies have shown that people with lower incomes spend a much larger portion of their income on lotteries and gambling than upper-income groups. So organized gambling robs from the poor and gives to the rich, the rich being either state governments or the wealthy owners and operators of casinos and online gambling companies.

Does my personal opinion about gambling make me think that we therefore ought to roll up the Internet and put it away, simply because it can be used for nefarious purposes? Not necessarily. A lot of bad things on the Internet are there simply because people have always been doing them, and people are now using the Internet a lot.

Gambling is a very old social problem. It became a popular recreation in China as much as 3500 years ago. The sage Confucius opposed the practice and several Chinese emperors tried to prohibit it, with mixed success. The fact that gambling has become an issue on the Internet is no more surprising than the fact that people occasionally tell lies in emails as well as in person.

What the Internet has done with gambling that is new is to internationalize it, making it much trickier for any single jurisdiction to enforce its laws or prosecute violators. When you had to fly to Las Vegas or Monaco to gamble in a big way, the volume was necessarily small, but now numerous gambling sites are just a click of the mouse away. Just as the development of radio broadcasting in the 1920s led to a whole new set of laws to regulate international broadcasting, which were (and are) both obeyed and violated to various degrees, the global nature of the Internet has challenged the sovereignty of nations in an unprecedented way.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, some countries such as China have chosen to spend a lot of effort to control their part of the Internet in various ways. I don't know what China's policy is toward Internet gambling, but the great firewall of China can probably block those sites as effectively as it blocks sites with the word "freedom." Such a restrictive system is unthinkable in this country, where the Internet acquired much of its egalitarian and democratic nature. But the Department of Justice seems to believe that other approaches such as restraining orders and arresting CEOs in airports can have the same effect.

What if you think there's nothing wrong with gambling, even after reading what I have to say about it? Well, if you are an engineer, I suppose you could join the technical support staff of without having your conscience bother you. But it seems to me that engineers have a special calling to make life better in some way, and not just one's own life, as in getting a high-paying job. After all, if your only criterion about a career is pay, you should go right out and start running drugs: the hourly rate can't be beat and no higher education is required. If you disagree with that idea, that means you have some moral feelings and intuitions about your career. The thing to do is not to ignore them, but ask yourself what they are, and why you have them. If you figure all this out and still think it's fine to work for an online gaming outfit, then go ahead. But just be careful about where your flights land.

Sources: A report on Carruthers' predicament was carried in the Aug. 1, 2006 online edition of the New York Times at More information is at the Internet News Bureau site An interesting history of gambling in China by Desmond Lam is at The Maryland study of gambling is cited in a philosophical argument against state lotteries by Verna V. Gehring is at