Monday, September 29, 2008

Where Will China's Walk in Space Take Us?

Over the weekend, three Chinese astronauts landed safely in Inner Mongolia after completing a 68-hour flight that included a 20-minute spacewalk. After the burst of patriotism from the Chinese people that the world witnessed during the Beijing Olympics, China now has even more to celebrate. As a successful demonstration that China has mastered the extreme engineering complexities of manned space flight, the exploit's message is unambiguous. But as with any technology, its ethical implications depend on how it is used and why.

It's no surprise that I obtained one of the more comprehensive news reports on the flight from New Delhi Television Limited's website. As China's nearest large neighbor to the south, India is more than a little interested in any signs that China's ability to throw complicated machinery a long distance has improved. The space race between the old U. S. S. R. and the United States was about many things, but at its core was the technology needed to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) halfway around the world. Just as war games provide a way for a country to show off its military might without actually fighting the enemy, the race to the moon provided the U. S. with a peaceful means of showing off the advanced state of our aerospace technology which, with relatively small modifications, was fully capable of blowing the U. S. S. R. to pieces.

Something similar is going on with China's space program, which has surprisingly long roots. As long ago as 1967, Chinese government officials announced their intentions to put a man in space. Unfortunately, a few things like the Great Cultural Revolution, Mao's demise, and the resultant governmental and social turmoil got in the way. It wasn't until 2003 that one Yang Liwei climbed aboard a rocket and became the first Chinese astronaut. But since then, the Chinese space program has made great strides. Considering that the U. S. took eight years to go from its first manned spaceflight in 1961 to the first moon landing in 1969, the Chinese program probably won't keep up quite that pace. But a moon landing is clearly in the works, as well as extensive Earth-orbiting doings such as a Chinese space station.

Unlike the International Space Station currently in orbit that involves astronauts and technology from numerous countries, China has chosen to go it alone almost completely in space. For many years the U. S. did the same, and it is tempting to lay out other parallels between the Chinese and U. S. space efforts. But they are different countries, and the reasons behind the Chinese space program may differ considerably from ours.

In a sense, space is the best of places and the worst of places. Some of the most idealistic and noble ambitions (and people, too) are directed toward the exploration of space, either for purely scientific reasons or for reasons of national prestige. The old Latin phrase ad astra ("to the stars") captures the quasi-religious feeling that many people have when they think about manned space exploration. At the same time, the worst kind of mass destruction that mankind is capable of inflicting in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would pass through the void of space on their way to vaporizing millions of people back on Earth. It is too early to tell what China will do with its new-found space capabilities. So far, all they've done is to perform the same kind of stunts that the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. did in the harmless but significant space race of the 1960s. That race, you will recall, did result in the dissolution of one of the two parties, although how much the Soviet Union's diversion of resources to its space effort contributed to its demise is a fight for the historians.

China is a different situation altogether. Although they have their own territorial ambitions, China is a much more homogeneous country than the U. S. S. R. ever was. And while I deplore dictatorships and Communist governments, from a technocratic point of view they can provide the long-range stability that tends to go away when you have a newly elected government every two to four years or so. Let's hope that China will put its efforts into showing how it can master the peaceful challenges of space instead of trying to pull some kind of international space blackmail on the rest of the world some day.

Sources: Wikipedia has a good article on the Chinese space program. An article on the recent Chinese spacewalk can be found at

A Note to Readers Requesting Private Responses

From time to time, a reader may wish to communicate with me in a way that requests a private response: for example, a query for more information, a question requiring a specific answer, etc. Unfortunately, until recently I neglected to post my email address on the profiles page of this blog. (For the record, it is, and can also now be found on the profiles page.) Some readers unable to locate my email address sent queries to the comments section of this blog, assuming that I could obtain their email addresses from the system and respond.

That is not the case. The system does not reveal to me the email addresses of anyone who sends in a comment. So to those readers who sent me queries or requests via the comment section, I apologize for not responding and for not posting my email address. You probably think by now that I'm one of those arrogant bloggers who's too busy to respond to individual inquiries. I assure you that this is not the case; I simply cannot recover your email address when you post in the comments section. Of course, if you give your email address or other identifying information within the post itself, I can respond that way, but some correspondents failed to do that, or are reluctant to post their email address in a public location.

So in the future, please feel free to post comments either anonymously or with identifying information within the post. But if you expect an individual response from me, please either include your email in the post, or email me directly at Thank you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Is Distributism, and Why Should Engineers Care?

Engineering is an unavoidably economic activity, since it always involves applying knowledge to achieve an end within the constraint of limited resources. Engineers have worked under every kind of economic system from radical Communism to the nearly unrestrained free market of places like Singapore. There seems to be a growing consensus that the only kind of economic system with a future is free-market capitalism, which even the leaders of the Peoples' Republic of China have embraced. I will now take moment during this more-than-usually-political season to introduce you to a system that is more than economics and really more than politics, but would profoundly change both if it was adopted seriously. It is a third alternative to capitalism or socialism which almost no one has heard of: distributism.

Historically, distributism was the way most economies operated in most parts of the world for centuries until the rise of the mercantile states in the seventeenth century, when capitalism began to take its modern form. Then socialism arose as an attempt to correct the flaws of capitalism, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Both capitalism and socialism share many concepts in common, including the philosophical assumption that man is Homo economicus: that is, the most important thing about man is his economic activity and behavior. Socialism puts the government in charge of the economy and capitalism bows to the free market, but both systems assume that when you have solved the economic problem, you have solved the most important problems.

Distributism, which had its heyday in England in the 1930s, starts from a different place altogether. It says that the economy was made for man, and not man for the economy.

Here's a little quiz: how many of the following items do you find appealing? Never mind how they would come about, just react positively or negatively to each:

--- Working at home, rather than in an office at the end of a long commute
--- Eating fresh fruits and vegetables you grew yourself or bought from a local farmer
--- Owning your own business
--- Being better off economically for having children rather than the reverse
--- Buying things made and sold by people who live in your neighborhood

None of these things are impossible or cloud-cuckoo-land pipe dreams. Millions of Americans enjoy one or more of them every day. All these things, and more that space doesn't allow me to list, are pieces of a distributist program that would encourage movement toward the wider distribution of ownership of productive property. That is distributism in a nutshell.

Where would engineers fit in a distributist economy? That is a good question, but one I would have to take time off and write a book about to answer adequately. Because large-scale capitalism is so deeply entrenched worldwide, most engineers work for firms that are either large multinationals themselves or depend on them. It is silly to pretend that you could take a multi-billion-dollar semiconductor foundry and turn it into dozens of little mom-and-pop IC plants spread all over the world. But it may seem silly simply because no one has thought along those lines for decades.

Many technical innovations that have taken place since the 1930s are potentially very friendly to a distributist economy. For instance, before the advent of the Internet it was impossible for a three-person company with limited capital to do worldwide marketing of any kind. There were simply no advertising media that such a small company could afford. Now all it takes is a website and maybe some translation software, and there you are. Already many firms are outsourcing specific engineering functions to private contractors, although in a haphazard way motivated by capitalistic concerns rather than other factors. The profession of engineering itself began largely as a group of quasi-independent professionals with what amounted to consulting practices, rather than as large staffs of wage-earning employees, which is the norm today.

These are idle musings at this point, admittedly, but the point is that bigger is not always better, and more means exist today to make small, owner-operated engineering firms viable than possibly ever before. There will always be a need for large organizations to deal with large projects such as aerospace programs, public works, and so on. But they need not be the rule-–one day they could be the rare exception in a distributist economy, in which most engineers would work either for themselves or in small local firms.

After decades of neglect, distributism is now seeing something of a renaissance, with books and websites showing up with some regularity. One of distributism's most prominent early exponents was the British author G. K. Chesterton, whose writings on distributism (The Outline of Sanity, Utopia of Usurers) are easier to find than some others. Wendell Berry, an author and farmer associated with what is known as the Southern Agrarian movement, takes positions that are often sympathetic with distributist principles. The Amish, who are often thought to eschew all forms of technology, actually take advantage of certain carefully chosen modern technologies, but only after carefully considering how its use will affect their individual and communal life.

You will probably never see a distributist candidate for President or a Distributist Party playing power politics. It is inherently a small-scale, local movement, but for that reason it can be much easier to live a practical distributist life here and now, in some ways, than it is to become an instant successful capitalist, for instance. If you think my treatment of distributism has been wacky and out of place, I promise not to bring it up again at least till after the November elections. But it's not impossible to imagine engineers doing well and doing good in a distributist economy as well as in the one we have now. And maybe, just maybe, things might be better than they are.

Sources: Books such as Distributist Perspectives I and II and Beyond Capitalism and Socialism are available from IHS Press (, which also publishes other works of Catholic social thought, where distributism finds many of its origins. On the web there are peppery blogs and information on distributism to be found in The Distributist Review at IEEE Technology and Society Magazine carried an excellent article by Jameson Wetmore on the Amish and their attitude toward technology in its Summer 2007 issue, pp. 10-21.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Will Peers Process Patents Perspicaciously?

Well, once you get on one of those alliteration kicks, it's hard to stop. This is a story about a big problem with the U. S. patent system, which is of concern to any engineer whose work is valuable enough to patent. And, about one small attempt to make it better.

For some years now, there has been general agreement that the patent system has major flaws. Basically, it's too easy to get a bad patent, and too easy to clog the legal system with patent lawsuits that never should have been started in the first place, based on overly-broad patents that never should have been issued. Partly because it's so easy, more patents are being filed every year, but the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) can't keep up—it now takes an average of more than two years to get a patent. And since many technologies such as software engineering come up with a whole new generation of products every few months or so, the patent system starts to look like a glacier stuck up on a mountain while a flood of water rushes by in the valley.

Part of the problem is that there aren't enough good patent examiners. Those are the government folks who pass judgment on whether a patent should be granted or not. The ideal patent examiner has advanced degrees in both law and a technical field, plus the patience and incorruptibility of a good detective. Such people have never been easy to find, and attracting them with a government pay scale is even harder. Faced with the rising flood of patents, patent examiners nowadays err on the side of generosity, allowing all sorts of patents through which in more rigorous days would have been tossed out. But to toss out a patent you need a good reason such as a citation of "prior art," and apparently doing a thorough job in that area is simply not something the patent office can handle very well anymore.

A recent news article highlights an attempt to improve the situation with something called Peer-to-Patent, a collaboration between the USPTO and New York Law School professor Beth Noveck. She has set up a website at which ordinary citizens (you or I included) can review selected patent applications, read and interpret the claims, cite prior art, and in short, pretend you are a patent examiner. If the "community" of volunteer examiners votes to forward your citations to the patent office, one of them may make a Top Ten list that actually gets used in the patent, if it gets issued, or more likely denied if your prior-art citation is a good one.

I viewed the little video on the site that gives an overview of the process. While it puts the best face on the matter, even my passing familiarity with patents (I have managed to obtain a couple over the years) tells me that to do a good job on just one application would require a good bit more work than it takes to do your average income-tax form, if not more. When I read about the Peer-to-Patent idea, my first question was, "Why would anybody bother to donate several hours of their highly marketable expertise to such a thing?" and after looking at the website, my first question remains unanswered.

As a practical matter, the only people I can imagine who would want to fool with this and devote the serious amount of work it would take, would be rivals of the inventors who made the original application, who are of course highly motivated to see it fail. If you translate this idea to a more familiar setting, I think you can see its problems better. Suppose you sue your neighbor for building a corner of his garage on your property. And suppose the judge in the civil suit, instead of hearing testimony from duly sworn-in experts such as surveyors and land-title experts, opens a website, posts the records of the case on line, and invites all and sundry to make comments, without even requiring them to give their real names. (The Peer-to-Patent website doesn't require real names, although it is recommended that you not hide behind an alias.) Who is the person most motivated to get online and trash your side of the case? Your neighbor, of course, or maybe his lawyer.

The analogy is not exact, but it does seem to me that by asking for "volunteers" to put in such a large amount of work—effort that the government can't seem to be able to hire on the open market—the site automatically selects only for the people who have the greatest motivation to criticize an application—that is, rivals of the original applicant who would dearly love to see it fail. And maybe that's exactly what Prof. Noveck is trying to do. But if that's the case, it seems more than a little hypocritical to just pretend that the volunteers are random, public-spirited citizens whose only motivation is the honor of having one of their prior-art citations selected for use by the USPTO. I mean, wouldn't that send you into orbit for weeks? Maybe there are some people like that, but I'm not optimistic that they'll be coming out of the woodwork to make the Peer-to-Patent idea succeed.

You have to give the USPTO and the New York Law School credit for trying something. The other day I heard a review of a rather cynical book by a fellow who says that the real motivation for Republicans who gain control of the federal government is to make it run so badly that people will lose faith in it, and not complain when it eventually withers away to the small government of many decades ago. I sincerely hope he's wrong about that, since if he's right we have been watching institutionalized hypocrisy in action for a long time. But weird ideas like this Peer-to-Patent business make me wonder. Maybe I'm wrong and Peer-to-Patent will be the answer to many of the USPTO's problems. But we'll have to wait a while to see.

Sources: The Associated Press article on Peer-to-Patent by Joelle Tessler was carried by many papers, including the Baltimore Sun on Sept. 15 at,0,1444023.story. The USPTO's main website is, and the Peer-to-Patent website is

Monday, September 08, 2008

War Comes to the Internet

When Russian troops attacked the Georgian province of South Ossetia last August 8, tanks and guns weren't the only weapons they were using. Starting in July, websites operated by the Georgian government suffered repeated attacks that intensified when the war on the ground started, and continued for days afterwards. The cyber-attacks took the form of distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) assaults in which hundreds or thousands of "bot" computers make so many synchronized requests to a website that it crashes, and shuts out legitimate users. The bots can be owned by unwitting users who may not even know their computer is being shanghaied for nefarious purposes. This is one of the first times when a cyber-attack was coordinated with a real war. But it's likely that it won't be the last. Of course, the Russian government denies all involvement, but it's easy to hide behind anonymous websites in cases like this.

War has always been one of the main incentives in advances of technology. And conversely, advances in technology—high-tech factories, communications centers, and military installations—become the target of wartime attacks, precisely because they are so valuable. So we shouldn't be surprised that as the Internet becomes an increasingly important part of a nation's infrastructure, war spills over into cyberspace too. More than ever, the engineering and software development that goes into vital Internet services such as banking, military communications, and public-safety coordination now needs to include some consideration of the possibility that terrorists or others with malign intent may mount a DDoS-type attack on them.

Fortunately, judging by the general level of reliability of these services, nothing like what happened to the Web in Georgia has happened here—yet. So far, terrorists have gone in mostly for the big splashy bombings that make gory headlines all over the world. But times and tactics change. As software expertise becomes more widespread in more parts of the world, terrorists or other nations may accumulate the expertise needed for a truly effective assault on the Internet infrastructure. It wouldn't have the drama or bloodiness of a bombing, but it might affect a lot more people, and for that reason alone it might prove more effective than a bomb thrown here or there.

The fact that such an attack hasn't happened yet says one of two things. Either our level of defenses against such attacks are so high that such attacks are not worth the effort, or else the people who would like to cause us problems simply haven't bothered to mount a major attack.

The trouble with knowing how much to spend on preparing for war is that the only way you know for sure that you didn't spend enough, is that you lose. And by then, it's too late. There will always be a measure of uncertainty in trying to answer the question, "Are we safe against a hostile Internet-based military attack?" But lower-level attacks by freelance blackmailers are always happening somewhere or other, and while deplorable, they do furnish a good testing ground for defenses against a larger attack.

As happened with the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, we may not find out the true extent of our Internet vulnerability until something really serious takes place. Sometimes it takes a major disaster to muster the political and technical will to do what should have been done a long time earlier.

And while attention is focused on software, we shouldn't forget that the Internet relies on physical fiber-optic cables whose routings and switch points are fairly well known. Every now and then some stray bulldozer takes out the main cable between San Marcos and Austin, and for a day or so our local Internet service is disrupted, or used to be. While it would take a lot more coordination than even the 9/11 attacks, you can imagine that a determined group of terrorists could fan out to remote unprotected areas and simultaneously slice the backbone cables that carry the bulk of domestic Internet traffic. It would take several days to fix that, and in the meantime our economy would suffer a serious hit.

Well, let's hope that none of these dismal speculations comes to pass. Like it or not, the Internet is an integral part of our lives now. And anyone who wants to disrupt it has only to try from the safety of their hideouts halfway across the world. But when or if they do, it will fall to the engineers and technicians who have made the Internet what it is to make sure that the thing keeps running.

Sources: An Agence France-Presse story on the Georgian cyber-attacks can be found at

Monday, September 01, 2008

Did Design Flaws Doom the Minneapolis Bridge?

I don't pretend to do breaking news in this blog, although timely events do make it in here on occasion. A little over a year ago, on Aug. 1, 2007, to be exact, a major bridge carrying I-35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 motorists and drawing attention to the generally poor state of highway infrastructure nationwide. At the time, there was speculation that neglected maintenance might have been a factor in the collapse. But last January, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an interim report which pointed to a design flaw as the possible culprit. The final accident report is due out in November, but the interim report sheds a lot of light on the issue already.

Here are some details. The bridge was an example of a truss design that was popular in the 1960s. The trusses used in the ill-fated bridge were made of steel beams that formed triangular shapes and converged at joints that were held together by gusset plates. Gusset plates are like the slices of bread on either side of a sandwich whose meat is the ends of the steel beams that you're tying together at the joints. The bridge builders fasten the beams to the gusset plates to make the joints secure. As you might imagine, the weight of the vehicular traffic plus the dead weight of the bridge itself and any wind forces, etc. all factored into the forces that these gusset plates had to deal with.

Figuring out all those forces is the job of civil engineers, and although the calculations are detailed and tedious, there is nothing involved that requires the genius of the proverbial rocket scientist. The NTSB people have laboriously recalculated the loads for all the gusset plates on the bridge, and using standards and assumptions current at the time the bridge was built, they found that most of the gusset plate designs (there are eight actual plates in each location) were done right. That is, the gusset plates were thick enough to have enough "capacity" to meet the "demand" that the bridge loads imposed. The report is written in terms of "demand/capacity ratios." If the calculated capacity of a plate to deal with loads is exactly equal to the demand placed on it, you have a demand/capacity ratio of one. Since all these calculations have some margin of error, it doesn't mean that the instant you go to a demand/capacity ratio of 1.1 the thing will bust. But generally, you want most of the items in your bridge to be capable of meeting more demand than they actually will have in practice—that is, a demand/capacity ratio of less than one is desirable. A 1.1 here and there won't be fatal, necessarily, but 1.5 or higher is not a good idea.

Well, somebody back in the sixties must have put some kind of thought like this into the design, because most of the gusset plates with higher demand were thicker, just like they should have been, and had reasonable demand/capacity ratios. To save money and fabrication time, the plates with less stress on them were made thinner, and most notably the set of eight plates designated "U10," near the middle of the bridge. The NTSB engineers calculated three different kinds of loads that were imposed on the plates: shear, principal tension, and principal compression. The U10 plates were the only ones that had a demand/capacity ratio of 1.5 or greater in all three kinds of loads. And the NTSB's study of the wreckage showed that all eight of those gusset plates had popped during, or more likely at the beginning of, the collapse.

You may recall that there was some heavy construction equipment on the bridge at the time. It begins to look like the I-35W bridge was a marginal design that somehow made it through forty years on the edge of safety, only to have a combination of factors topple it into the river last year.

We will have to wait for the full accident report to be released in November to know more. But in its conservative engineering way, the NTSB has shown that age or maintenance may not have had as much to do with the collapse as we thought at first. This shows how errors in engineering judgment can lie dormant for decades before bearing their bitter fruit, to borrow a phrase from the old "Shadow" radio program (no, I'm not quite that old, but I've heard recordings).

We may never know exactly what the designers were thinking when they designed this detail of the bridge, because evidently the Minnesota Department of Transportation doesn't have any records of the consulting firm's calculations for the gusset plates. It might have been a case of rushing a job, or a simple error of some kind. The engineers who actually performed the initial design may be dead, or retired, or otherwise unlocatable. And finding them or suing their firm is beside the point, in a way. Certainly, legal measures are one way to deal with this sort of thing. But a better use of resources, to my mind at least, is to include this story in civil engineering classes and textbooks as a lesson in how not to do it.

Sources: An article describing the news conference at which the NTSB issued its preliminary report can be found at The NTSB's interim report no. 383930 can be downloaded at the NTSB docket website My thanks to Michael Sherry for drawing my attention to this report.