Monday, January 25, 2010

Building Codes, Earthquakes, and Haiti

Two weeks ago tomorrow, the worst earthquake in two centuries hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The official death toll has exceeded 100,000 and it is likely that millions are homeless and will have to leave the city temporarily or permanently. The survivors have my sympathy and prayers, along with hopes that this terrible tragedy will have a few positive outcomes. One of the best possible outcomes would be a change in the way the city and country are rebuilt.

Laws concerned with how buildings are constructed can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi promulgated around 1800 B. C. Its provisions were simple: if a building collapsed on its owner and killed him, the builder lost his head. This was a powerful, if negative, incentive, but it lacked something in the area of specificity. In the U. S., Baltimore was the first city to adopt a prescriptive code that not only laid out penalties for poor construction, but described what good construction was. This was around 1904. Since then, advances in structural engineering and materials science have given us the tools to predict how almost any structure will behave under a wide variety of anticipated natural disasters, from hurricanes and floods to earthquakes. But the problem in Haiti was that this knowledge, even in the rare instances when people possessed it, was rarely applied.

Amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the tallest building in Haiti—the Digicel building, completed about a year ago—still stands with only minor cosmetic damage. Why? It was constructed according to American building codes to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake—and it did. A plainer argument for enforcement of building codes could not be imagined.

If Haiti has any building codes, I was unable to ascertain exactly what they amount to or where they apply. A project that was ongoing in 2007 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) put up a website that stated Haiti has no national building code, and was focused on developing one. According to news reports, any building codes that exist are merely on paper, and people use cinder blocks that are basically home-made, reportedly weighing only about 12% of what the same size block would weigh if it was made under U. S. standards. Reinforcing bar is used sparingly, if at all, and when people need more room they just go down to the homemade cinder-block store and pile another story or two onto their house. Radical libertarians might do well to study Haiti as an example of what happens when government absents itself completely from the supervision of private and even public construction. Things can go well for a while, but when an earthquake hits, the devastation is nearly total.

And while engineers, to the extent they were involved at all in Haitian construction practices, deserve blame for not building better buildings, an individual engineer can do only so much in a regulatory, economic, political, and cultural environment that militates so strongly against good construction. Digicel was able to build according to American codes because it had the money and expertise to do so. The average Haitian in a country with the lowest per-capita income in the Western Hemisphere cannot afford to pay that much, unless he wants to live in an earthquake-proof building the size of a phone booth.

What will have to change if the next earthquake is not to produce equal devastation?

Clearly, the people will need to demand that the government get serious about building codes. Unfortunately, there is little precedent in recent history for the Haitian government getting serious about anything besides corruption and self-serving behavior on the part of its politicians. But perhaps the shock engendered by this tragedy will make people understand that corruption has a price, and the price is one that Haitians can no longer afford. Something like that happened after the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, in which 146 garment workers died when a New York City sweatshop caught fire. That tragedy inspired the creation of the American Society of Safety Engineers and led to important legislation regarding worker safety.

But clearly those aspects of Haitian culture which take a laissez-faire attitude toward future-directed regulation of any kind, including building codes, must change if Haitians are to live in safer buildings in the future. How this can happen is a problem for politicians, diplomats, the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have poured many millions of dollars into Haiti over the last few decades, and most of all the citizens, who alone can demand better of their government than they have received heretofore. We have the knowledge of how to build safer buildings, though it is perhaps not distributed very widely in Haiti. What was lacking, and what I hope will arise in the future, is the will to reach a compromise between the total lack of building codes that went on before the earthquake, and an American-style set of codes that would put new construction totally out of reach for all but the richest Haitians. This requires ingenuity, political smarts, and good will on all sides, but it can happen. I only pray that it will.

Sources: I used Wikipedia’s article on building codes and news items on Haiti found at and

Monday, January 18, 2010

Should Google Leave China?

The government of the People's Republic of China has only nominal regard for freedom of speech. It considers censorship part of its job, and so for years now, any internet service provider or search-engine operator in the PRC has had to agree to restrictions on what kinds of things can be searched for and what kinds of private information the government can get its hands on. U.-S.-based companies such as Yahoo and Google have been criticized for giving in to these conditions in the past, and with some justification. If freedom of speech is worth preserving in the U. S., why should it be sacrificed as a cost of doing business in China? But it looks like at least Google is having second thoughts about the whole idea.

According to a New York Times article last week, Google has announced that it will "stop cooperating with Chinese Internet censorship," and is thinking about whether to shut down its activity in the country altogether. A look at Google's history with China is of help in understanding how things came to this pass.

Google began Chinese-based operations in 2006 under the condition that it would cooperate with government-imposed restrictions on what its search engines could provide users. As you can imagine, the whole process of doing searches in Chinese is a very different thing than it is in English or other languages. Nevertheless, Google's Chinese operation reportedly made good progress, but up to now lags considerably behind the search-engine leader in that country, an outfit called Baidu that has close ties to the government. Google's famous ethics motto—"Don't be evil"—obviously leaves something to be desired in the definition department (what's evil?), but Chinese censorship enforced by Google was always a blot on their otherwise fairly clean corporate reputation.

Censorship is not the only reason Google is thinking of leaving. China has been the apparent source of numerous cyberattacks and attempts to hack into private systems. Just a week before Google's announcement, another batch of attacks targeted Silicon Valley companies and Chinese human-rights activists. This starts to look like the worst kind of government-encouraged corporate spying, with a little suppression of free speech thrown in.

Google is right to consider washing its hands of China, but so far the firm has taken only limited action: saying it will try to establish a new arrangement with the government in order to provide uncensored search results. But these negotiations are unlikely to go anywhere, so Google may have to follow up its threats with action. Leaving China for good would shut it out of the huge and growing Chinese market for the foreseeable future, and would undoubtedly hurt the company's bottom line. But Google has a pretty large bottom line these days, not having had a big exposure in mortgage-backed securities or other investments that have tanked in the last couple of years. Whatever its flaws, Google has demonstrated some of the pre-eminent virtues of free-market capitalism in how two college students with a good idea were able to create a multi-billion-dollar organization that has changed the way billions of people live, and mostly for the better. But this achievement rested on some key philosophical principles.

The fundamental philosophy of Google—that sharing information is better than not sharing it—is in direct conflict with the fundamental fear-based pragmatism of the Chinese government. Whether or not Google quits China altogether, these two philosophies will always be in conflict. Up to now, Google's management may have thought that working from within China could lead to at least marginal improvements in freedom of speech, and the history of their three to five years there is marked by disputes and struggles to maintain or expand such freedoms. But the government holds the Internet plug in its hands, and a large corporation like Google can't play at Internet guerrilla warfare. They have to operate in the open, in full view of the government. So leaving may be the best thing to do.

The Internet is a good example of how technology usually has built-in biases that give the lie to the old saying that "technology is neutral, only the way people use it has ethical implications." The Internet's very technological structure is democratic, not hierarchical. Every Internet address is in principle as accessible as every other address. While individual sites can pile up hierarchies to the moon and cause users to drill down dozens of layers to get to where they want to be, the Internet itself is a remarkably "flat" place. This was evidently the intention of the early designers of the Internet, who formed a pretty homogeneous community (physicists, computer scientists, and the like) and who little imagined that their cute idea of inter-computer communication would one day be used by Islamic jihadists to recruit airline bombers. Or, would be used by hospitals to allow telemedicine to save lives.

Google is currently struggling with an ethical choice—not a simple one by any means, but significant ethical choices are sometimes not simple. By leaving China, they would send a message to the government leaders that actions have consequences. Whether that message will get through remains to be seen. But I hope they send it nonetheless.

Sources: The New York Times article on Google's announcement of Jan. 12 is at

NOTE TO READERS, especially those who took the time to email me after my query last week: I heard from five of you. Three were people I'd never heard from before, one was a fellow who emailed me a few months ago, and one is a friend I've known since 1980. Given that direct mail usually has less than a 10% success rate, I'm going to assume that means I have at least fifty or so readers. That's a nice comfortable number, and so I will look forward to bringing this blog to you with improved quality and hopes that every so often it will make a positive difference in your life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bombs versus Bareness: The Choice for Airline Safety?

After Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to explode his underwear on a Christmas-day flight from Holland to the U. S. last year, a lot of people got a lot more interested in airport security, and understandably so. In particular, more attention has been focused on the so-called "full-body scanners" now in use at a few U. S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration has ordered 150 more and has money for 300 of these devices. According to a report in the Washington Post, if the Dutch airport where Abdulmutallab boarded his plane had been using such a scanner, they would very likely have caught him. But there are privacy concerns about these devices.

By now you have probably seen sample images from the machines on TV: they look like what you might get if you took one of those little wooden life-modeling dolls that artists use to get the basics of the human figure down, and put it on a copier-machine screen and scanned it. The level of detail is low; objects smaller than about half an inch in diameter are at the edge of the system's resolution. And the faces and certain other personal areas have been obscured by software so you see just a uniform gray blur. Nevertheless, the machines can't do their intended job unless they present the basic body outline minus clothing, and depending on who you are and what shape you're in, even that amount of detail may be too much for some people.

We are told that the folks looking at these pictures will not be able to see the real humans whose images they're checking—the inspectors will be in another part of the building. I suppose that helps—if anybody snickers, at least you won't be able to see them do it.

The right to privacy is a fairly modern one in some ways, being the basis of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the U. S. But as in so many situations where technology outpaces the legal system, the right not to have people look at your naked body by means of technology is not well defined. There are peeping-tom laws: if some creep in your apartment complex installs a hidden video camera in your shower and gets caught, there are ways to prosecute him. But this is a different situation, since it is the police who are doing the snooping, and for a good purpose: to keep bombs off planes.

As I may have related elsewhere, I was involved in an experimental program way back in the early 1990s to develop just such a contraband-detection system using millimeter waves, a type of microwave that is naturally emitted by the human body. Somewhere I have millimeter-wave pictures of myself with and without some Play-Doh taped underneath a windbreaker. There were two problems with the technology at the time. One was, a full-body scan (actually only the upper half, now I think about it) took 45 minutes. And the level of detail was sufficiently good that the company I was working for wasn't able to market the thing successfully, partly out of privacy concerns. As I recall, the images weren't any more detailed than what we've seen in the papers lately, but attitudes about what constitutes too much detail have changed a good bit since then. And we've had things like the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center bombings happen.

I don't see much in the way of organized opposition to these devices, however the privacy issue is handled. The alternative that people are being given at airports is to submit to a pat-down, which is a privacy intrusion of a different kind. If the new technology was foolproof, it might be more justifiable, but neither the full-body scan nor a patdown will detect the ultimate in suicide bombing techniques: a person with a bomb inside their body that can be set off by a cell phone. If they start checking for those things, I think I'll just take the train.


For the first year or two after I began writing this blog in 2008, a number of readers sent in comments, which is a fairly simple thing to do. If you already have an identity on this website, you can post comments right away and they show up immediately without my intervention. If you post as "anonymous" I get an email from the system allowing me to exercise my judgment as to whether to post the comment or not. There are only two kinds of comments I won't post: ones which in my judgment are scandalous or libelous (I get very few of those), or spam. Unfortunately, in the last few months about 90% of the comments I've been getting are spam: either innocuous-sounding general things like "Oh gee I really like your blog" followed by a URL that is clearly advertising, or else a comment entirely in Chinese. Although I wish I could read Chinese, I can't, and these go in the bit trash along with the spam. In the meantime, the "real" comments have dwindled to almost zero.

So here is my request: if you read this blog at all, either occasionally or regularly, would you please email me directly (not comment) at, subject line "Your Blog" and let me know what you think about it? All comments, good or bad, will be welcome, because I'm operating right now in what engineers call an "open-loop" situation with no feedback, and that's generally not a good state for a system to be in. I promise to read all your responses and summarize them in a blog soon. Thank you, and have a happy 2010.

Sources: The Washington Post carried an article on full-body scanners and their planned deployment at There is information about how the technology works at And the article in which I showed off the capability of a 1993-era millimeter-wave contraband detection system is “Contraband detection through clothing by means of millimeter-wave imaging,” by G. R. Huguenin, C.-T. Hsieh, J. E. Kapitsky, E. L. Moore, K. D. Stephan, and A. S. Vickery, SPIE Proc. 1942 Underground and Obscured Object Imaging and Detection, Orlando, FL, pp. 117-128, 15-16 April 1993.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Rational View of Global Warming

Not that the scientists and politicians from Al Gore to the attendees of last month's Copenhagen summit are completely without rationality, but one must admit that except for the scientist-to-scientist exchanges (and not all of them, if some recently disclosed emails are considered), ratiocination—meaning the process of reasoning from objective, verifiable facts to logical conclusions—is in scarce supply in discussions of global warming. The problem is that so much of the controversy depends on what is going to happen, as opposed to what has happened already, and no matter how good one's computer model or crystal ball, debates that hinge critically on future events tend to go on forever—or at least until the future under debate turns into the past. And by then it's sometimes too late.

How refreshing it was, then, when I found on my acquaintance Prof. David Rutledge's website a detailed presentation of his that takes an original, yet historically based approach to the question. The title is not one to grab headlines: "Hubbert's Peak, the Coal Question, and Climate Change." But Rutledge, a highly honored mathematician and engineering professor, Fellow of the IEEE, former Caltech division chair, and all-around straight shooter, would rather title a talk accurately than sexily.

The Hubbert's Peak of the title is not to be found in a mountain range, but in the statistics of U. S. oil production. In 1956, King Hubbert, an engineer with Shell Oil, wrote a paper predicting that oil production in the States was rising but would peak in about fifteen or twenty years, thereupon entering a gradual decline for the rest of the century. The entire curve, from the early Spindletop discoveries to the present day and beyond, would resemble the famous Gaussian or bell-shaped curve of elementary statistics, though for different reasons. The point is that within a given large region of exploration, discovery and production activities tend to follow a pattern that starts small, peaks sooner or later (at a time that can often be estimated from historical data), and then tapers off.

Rutledge has compiled statistics from other countries and other fields, notably regional and global coal production, which tend to bear out the general principles behind Hubbert's Peak. I have neither the space nor the expertise to do justice to this 60-slide presentation, which is obviously the tip of a larger iceberg of work which Rutledge says will eventually turn into a book. But I have managed to glean a couple of take-homes from the intimidatingly extensive and sophisticated analyses that Rutledge and his collaborators have performed.

One is, that government estimates of fossil fuel reserves, no matter by what government and no matter when, tend to be optimistic by factors of two or three. Comparing such historical estimates to the facts on the ground (or we should say, dug out of the ground, in the case of coal) shows that this principle, which Rutledge distinguishes with the name of "Deffeyes' Law of Bureaucratic Resource Estimates," prevails across national boundaries and across decades. In other words, government bureucrats almost invariably give in to political pressures to overestimate reserves.

This has important implications for the second take-away, which has to do with what will actually happen with regard to global warming as the remainder of the world's fossil fuel reserves get burned up. Trouble is, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the august body whose pronouncements are treated as gospel by many, uses government estimates of future production in its calculations. In one of the few slides where Rutledge lets a little emotion show through, the title is "Where Does the IPCC Get Its Coal Numbers?" He shows how the IPCC cherry-picks the worst-sounding bureaucratic estimates in order to get their input numbers for their climate analyses. On the following slide, "Carbon Dioxide Emissions" he shows his piece de resistance: a chart of the many and various IPCC estimates of cumulative CO2 emissions versus time out to 2100, compared to his own statistics on the question. The IPCC curves spray out high into the graphical sky, like tracers from a crazed machine-gunner trying to shoot down an invisible fighter plane, while Rutledge's curve slowly and gracefully slides in underneath them all like a gently rolling hill.

The bottom bottom line, on his summary slide, is that according to his figures, based not on speculative climate-change models but simply on historical production figures, rationally interpreted, is that we are not going to end up burning nearly as much carbon as the IPCC says, and that the human-caused portion of both future temperature change and ocean-level increases will be so small as to be comparable to the natural noise level.

Is Rutledge right? Again, the only absolutely sure way to tell is to wait and see, although if the issue is what happens by 2100, the waiting will have to be done on the part of my very youngest readers, or perhaps their children. But if you are looking for a calm, highly rational, technically challenging, but rock-solid study about the climate-change controversy, you could do no better than to look at what Prof. Rutledge has come up with.

Sources: The presentation referred to can be downloaded free at Prof. Rutledge's website, where PowerPoint slides, an Excel file, and video of his Watson Lecture on this subject are all available.