Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wizardry and Word

Here's a little quiz. I'm going to give you a passage from the 1939 novel The Sword In the Stone, about King Arthur's tutelage under the magician Merlyn back before anyone (except maybe Merlyn, who lived backwards in time) knew that the changeling boy Wart was really King Arthur. After you read it, try and think of a situation similar to Merlyn's that you probably find yourself in several times a week.

As the scene opens, Merlyn has just brought Wart back from a magical trip somewhere, and on their return, Merlyn discovers that he lost his hat. Here’s what happens next:

[quote—Google doesn't accept tabs!]

The Wart sat quiet while Merlyn closed his eyes and began to mutter to himself. Presently a curious black cylindrical hat appeared on his head.

Merlyn examined it with a look of disgust, said bitterly, “And they call this service!” and handed it back to the air. He closed his eyes and produced with growing indignation, in rapid succession, this . . . and this . . . and this. [In the original each “this” is followed by sketches of a top hat, a conductor’s cap, a Sherlock-Holmes style deerstalker, and a sailor’s cap.] . . .

“Now,” said Merlyn furiously, apparently to nobody, “do you think you are being funny?”

“Very well then, why do you do it?”

“That’s no excuse. Naturally I meant the one I was wearing.”

“But wearing now, of course, you fool. I don’t want a hat I was wearing in 1890. Have you no sense of time at all?"

Merlyn took off his sailor hat and held it out to the air for inspection.

“This is an anachronism,” he said severely. “That’s what it is, a beastly anachronism.”

Archimedes [Merlyn’s pet owl] seemed to be accustomed to these scenes, for he now said in a reasonable voice, “Why don’t you ask for the hat by name, master? Say, ‘I want my magician’s hat,’ not ‘I want the hat I was wearing.’ Perhaps the poor chap finds it as difficult to live backwards in time as you do.”

“I want my magician’s hat,” Merlyn said sulkily.

Instantly the long pointed cap was standing on his head.

[end quote]

If you are like me, as you read this passage it seemed strangely familiar. Where do you find yourself trying to do some simple, trivial thing, only to have your desires frustrated by an entity that gets it almost right, but not quite, and you have to keep trying again and again until someone wiser than you gives you the right advice? Then it works like a charm (so to speak).

If you say, "Operating any Microsoft product," you are right. Now, don't get me wrong. Microsoft comes in for a lot of criticism simply because its products are so ubiquitous, not because they are necessarily inferior or hard to use. But it is inevitable that in the case of something as complex and feature-filled as Word or Excel, that the average user who wants to do only a few things will sooner or later come up against a problem that is best described as a failure to communicate.

Whoever Merlyn was talking with (and we never find out), they seem to be peculiarly literal-minded—like computers. They're very fast—like computers—at doing something completely wrong, such as handing you a top hat when you want a magician's cap.

The other day, I was writing a list of things and wanted to head each item (a), (b), and open-parenthesis-c-close parenthesis. I spelled it out that way because if I tried just typing it literally the way I did the first two, I didn't get (c), I got the little "c" in a circle that means "copyright." Evidently there's a frustration meter built into the software, though, because the third or fourth time I erased the copyright symbol and typed (c), the machine finally understood what I meant and let me continue.

When things like this happen, I'm glad that I'm alone in the room and there's no one around to wonder who I am about to kill. I have conversations with Word and Excel, most of them printable, but I will not reproduce them here except to say that they have the same general tone as Merlyn's talk with his invisible servant.

How T. H. White got the idea for that scene is beyond me, writing well before computers were more than a gleam in a few inventors' eyes. The real joke is not so much that the invisible magic servant is incompetent, but that Merlyn can't be precise enough in his magical commands. Which is true for us too, by and large. I suppose somewhere in the universe, people teach entire courses on how to use Word and Excel, and there's all those online tutorials I never have time to go through—though I spend as much or more time trying to fix some annoying little problem that I might sail through easily if I'd had a formal course on the subject.

Part of the problem is the deep shadow of anonymity in which Microsoft cloaks its engineers. In this it's like the old Disney studios. No matter what talented people contributed to a Disney film before about 1970, all the credits said was "A Walt Disney Production." This is good for the head man if there is more praise than blame to go around, but I venture to say that Bill Gates is the most roundly cursed name in the phone book, especially around times when new Microsoft products are released. If Microsoft would allow a little public recognition of the people who are responsible for certain products, maybe the anger would be diffused some and we might even come to look up to these people as the sages they ought to be.

But knowing the typical software engineer, meeting the public who uses one's program is not ranked high on one's bucket list. So perhaps it is just as well that Mr. Gates is the public lightning rod for all manner of curses and denunciations whenever a Microsoft product fails to read our minds correctly. But if we knew who was behind the "wizards" of the software, we might act with less anger and more restraint against a fallible piece of software written by fallible human beings.

Sources: T. H. White's The Sword In the Stone is the first of a four-part series of Arthurian novels called The Once and Future King, and by most estimates, is by far the best one.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dead Wrong?

Since death is one of the things we try to avoid in doing engineering ethics, it only stands to reason that we need to have a good, widely accepted definition of death. This might not be as easy to agree on as you might think.

Michael Shermer is one of the nicest atheists you'll ever meet. He is a cheery, humorous person by nature, endowed with a strong sense of fairness and even generosity in debate, which is more than you can say about some skeptics. I once heard him speak at a conference that included many religious believers, and his attitude toward them was always courteous, but he never allowed them to get away with logical lapses. In his monthly column for Scientific American, Shermer shows the same combination of humor and rigor, so I was interested to read what he had to say about death in the March issue.

He starts off by saying, "Have you ever died and come back to life? Me neither. No one has." He goes on to describe a panel he participated in on Larry King Live in which several folks who claimed that they had died and come back to life told about their experiences. Shermer was more than willing to admit they had experienced a "near-death" state, but he says that death is a process, not an instantaneous event. And although he doesn't say in so many words, he clearly excludes anyone (or any living entity, presumably) from the category of ever having been "dead" if they are now living, no matter what state they were in at an earlier time.

That makes sense in a way, but consider the following situation. There are certain small bacteria whose internal workings are so simple that they can be frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures or below without suffering permanent harm. A biologist told me once of an experiment he performed. He took one of these bacteria and chilled it so cold that you could show that all chemical and metabolic activity in the bacterium was frozen out—at that point, it was just an inert inanimate object and harbored no more lifelike activity than a salt crystal. Then he gradually warmed it up again to the point that its inner machinery thawed out and it began processing food and excreting waste and so on—in other words, it came back to life.

Now here is the critical question: when the bacterium was in its suspended-animation state, was it alive or dead? The answer depends on your definition of death.

If we use Shermer's definition, strictly speaking, we can't say until we know the subsequent history of the thing. Suppose that the biologist then lifted the frozen bacteria out of the cryostat, still frozen, and ran it through an acid bath or something that disintegrated the critter into its constituent atoms before it thawed out. Even Shermer would have to admit it was dead at that point. But he wouldn't have been able to say earlier, because if the biologist had instead thawed the thing out and got it going again, by Shermer's own definition, it would never have died. Like the guests on Larry King Live, it would have simply had a near-death experience.

This is not just a trivial thought problem. Out in California, there is a company that for a hefty fee will take your body (once you have ceased to function), freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and preserve it until such time as science has advanced enough to get you going again. If Shermer wants to be consistent, he can't say that those people are dead either, since neither he nor anyone else knows for absolutely sure that some day, scientific progress may enable the revival of people on ice like that. It's a good thing Shermer doesn't run a life-insurance company, because if he did there would be a lot of survivors of those frozen entities in California who wouldn't get their death benefits, because the alleged deceased doesn't meet Shermer's definition of death.

To turn theological for a moment, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus is a central, if not the central, tenet of the faith. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then by Shermer's definition, he never died, and if his followers rise some day too, they never died, either. Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), Jesus himself talks this way. In the Gospel of John, just before Jesus tells the dead and smelly Lazarus to come out of his tomb, he tells Lazarus's sister Martha that "He who believes in me shall never die." The Gospel doesn't say what Lazarus claims to have experienced during his four days in the tomb, but he later makes an appearance at the first-century equivalent of Larry King Live—a large banquet—and becomes sufficiently famous that the authorities plot to kill him as well as Jesus. If Shermer had been around then, I'm sure he would have said that Lazarus merely had a near-death experience as well.

Perhaps engineers can be satisfied with a pragmatic definition of death. If someone comes to be in a condition that makes it very unlikely they will be up and around and paying taxes any time soon, then we can consider them to be dead, no matter what philosophers or skeptics like Shermer or Christians say. I'm a Christian myself, and maybe the ancient custom of referring to believers who died in the faith as asleep rather than dead would be worth reviving. But if we revived it, it never really would have died, now, would it?

Sources: Michael Shermer's column "Surviving Death on Larry King Live" appears on p. 32 of the March 2010 issue of Scientific American. For those interested in the cryonics movement, Jill Lepore's report on the Cryonics Institute, one of the leading people-freezing outfits, appears in the Jan. 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The End of the Space Shuttle-And What Next?

America's space program has always been interesting from an engineering ethics perspective. During the race to the moon in the 1960s, we witnessed the unique spectacle of billions of dollars of technological effort focused on a goal that was, in retrospect, primarily political and cultural, not technical or scientific. The Space Shuttle's two major disasters—Challenger's explosion after launch in 1986 and Columbia's disintegration on reentry in 2003—have provided extensively documented object lessons in how not to manage hazardous technical operations. And now as America faces a new decade and the Space Shuttle's scheduled retirement by the end of this year, the question arises: what next?

The Obama administration has weighed in with its opinion: no trip to the moon, on the government's dime, anyway. According to news reports, the President's proposed budget eliminates funding for the moon-bound Constellation program, on which $9 billion has already been spent. A while back, $9 billion sounded like a lot of money, but as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, that is only a few percent of the 2009 stimulus package that has seemed to do little more than delay some inevitable cutbacks. Constellation could be finished for less than $9 billion more, but instead, the budget calls for a change in course toward commercial space flights.

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, I am no supporter of the Space Shuttle. The only justification for keeping this antiquated technology running is that we had no alternative if America was to keep any presence in manned space flight. So I welcome the wind-down of the program after its remaining four flights this year, and look forward to seeing one of the Shuttles take a well-deserved rest in the halls of the Smithsonian Museum, where it belongs.

At the same time, my underlying assumption was that wiser heads than mine would initiate and complete an alternative to the Shuttle in a timely fashion, "timely" meaning not too long after the Shuttle was retired. Well, it retires in less than a year, and not only do we not have a replacement, now we do not even have plans for a replacement. True, various private firms are competing for both manned and unmanned space operations, but let's think about that for a moment. The restrictions and precautions needed to make manned space flight safe enough to undertake even by a government employee who has trained for ten or fifteen years for a mission one knows to be dangerous, are so expensive that only the government has heretofore been able to afford it. In today's litigious environment, I am trying to imagine how a private company is going to succeed (which means, make a profit at) in a field where entire governments have spent billions and failed to develop manned flight systems that are safe and reliable, let alone economical.

Just to be technical a moment: With unmanned space flights such as satellite launches, once the hardware is in orbit your job is mostly done. If the launch fails, your expenses are no greater than if it succeeds—you just don't have an orbiting satellite to show for it. All the hardware is disposable and it's just a cost of doing business to throw most of it into the ocean.

By contrast, in manned space flight, at least some of the hardware has to come back, with a live person or persons inside. Life-support systems are extraordinarily complex, the G-forces the human body can stand are limited, and a number of other complications mean that manned space flight is orders of magnitude more challenging than unmanned flight. The small number of privately funded flights by wealthy individuals have resulted, not from companies founded for the explicit purpose of taking rich guys into space, but as a byproduct of Russian space expenditures and a desire on the part of Russia to pay for their existing program any way they can.

I will be very surprised if anything significant comes from Obama's call for private enterprise to take up the slack in our manned space program. If private firms don't suddenly develop a reliable, safe, and economical way to get people into space, then as Krauthammer points out, for the first time since 1962, the United States will have no means of putting humans into space.

The space program began largely as a manifestation of national pride, which is not an emotion that our current President seems inclined to indulge. As glad as I am that the Shuttle is finally going the way of the Wright Brothers' planes, I confess to some unease that for the foreseeable future, we will have to rely on Russia and perhaps other nations for taking our astronauts to the International Space Station and anywhere else up there they'd like to go. This is at a time when China is continuing to boast about its new space program, which registered its latest success in 2008 with a spacewalk in orbit. In historical terms, the Chinese appear to be where the U. S. was in space in about 1965. But despite the Chinese government's other disadvantages such as its repressive nature and despotic tendencies, it does have the advantage of continuity. So when Chinese officials talk about planning lunar missions by around 2017, we should at least take them seriously.

It would be a shame if the U. S. abandons manned spaceflight altogether, although a hiatus for the purpose of planning a safer and more economical means than the Space Shuttle would be justified if we eventually got back on the horse and continued to ride. But right now, that doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Sources: A Reuters dispatch on the Obama budget for space can be found at Charles Krauthammer's column on this decision is at the National Review Online website

Monday, February 08, 2010

Lessons from Flight 3407: Pay Attention

Last Tuesday, Feb. 2, the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a synopsis of its final report on the crash of Flight 3407 outside Buffalo, New York a year ago (Feb. 12, 2009, to be exact). All aboard the Colgan Air commuter flight from Newark to Buffalo were killed, as well as one person on the ground, raising the total number of fatalities to fifty. In my initial blog on this crash, I reported that there might have been a problem with the deicing machinery on the plane. But an NTSB hearing last May revealed that evidence had emerged of significant pilot error. At the time, there was much consternation in the press about the fact that the co-pilot, 24-year-old Rebecca Shaw, was earning only about $17,000 annually and was living with her parents to save expenses. The NTSB found that both Shaw and pilot Marvin Renslow acted unprofessionally during the flight, tolerating distractions from "personal portable electronic devices," chatting about irrelevant matters during the final approach, and reacting incorrectly to emergency warnings. There were three separate occasions at which Renslow could have corrected the deteriorating situation above Buffalo that night, but the NTSB found that his reactions were characterized by "startle and confusion," to quote from the official synopsis. He had a spotty training record, and this probably contributed to the fact that when the "stick shaker" (a device designed to warn pilots of an impending stall) was activated, he did not automatically push the stick forward as his training should have prompted him to, but instead pulled back, compounding the situation and ultimately causing him to lose control of the aircraft.

Anyone who has studied safety and engineering-related accidents knows that beneath every headline-grabbing tragedy, there are usually a lot more minor incidents, near misses, and recoverable errors that for one reason or another did not go all the way to sudden death for lots of people. The airline industry as a whole has been under financial pressure for many years, and so you have the situation where young, inexperienced, poorly paid pilots are making up an increasing fraction of the airline-pilot staff. For every Flight 3407, there are probably a dozen or more similar incidents that were caught at the last minute.

In its collective wisdom, the NTSB implicitly recognized this more systemic problem in its list of twenty-five recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration. (One can question the bureaucratic wisdom of having one agency investigate accidents and recommending corrective action to another, but that is a discussion for another time.) The NTSB calls for better training, more careful scrutiny of pilots whose test scores show problems (or who flunk tests altogether), and more of what they call "sterile cockpit discipline."

The ability to direct one's attention is one of the supreme gifts of humanity, but if a person lacks the training or inclination to do so, all the skills in the world are useless. Both Renslow and Shaw were fatigued before they embarked on Flight 3407 (Renslow had slept in the airline's pilot lounge in violation of regulations), but fatigue was no excuse for inattention. Everyone who drives a car knows how important it is to avoid being distracted by cell-phone conversations, GPS readouts, or any of the other amusements and information sources we tend to surround ourselves with. This goes double with the much more complex task of flying a plane, for which sterile cockpit discipline, meaning doing your job and nothing else that will distract you, is a necessary prerequisite. Unfortunately, Shaw and Renslow did not learn that lesson well enough and paid for it with their lives.

The British comic John Cleese, one of the original Monty Pythons, once satirized overly chatty airline pilots in a hilarious sketch. Clearly bored out of his mind by the monotony of his flying job, he amused himself by getting on the intercom and making announcements such as, "Hello, this is the Captain speaking. There is absolutely no cause for concern," then remarking to his copilot, "There, that'll get them thinking." The sketch degenerates to the point where the passengers all jump out of the plane, at which point Cleese looks out the window and comments reflectively, "You know, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some trouble about this."

Analyzing humor is not a funny business, but neither is investigating air crashes. The sketch gained much of its energy from the fact that in the public mind, airline pilots are largely a stereotype of the responsible professional. The picture of a pilot intentionally twitting the passengers and goofing off is funny (in a TV sketch, anyway) because it is so incongruous with the profession's standard public image.

But professionalism has to be achieved one pilot at a time. The NTSB, in its investigation of Flight 3407, has spotted what it fears to be a dangerous trend of unprofessionalism in the cockpit. While its recommendations do not carry the force of law, I hope that the FAA, whose dictates are law, will take them seriously. Professionalism, smooth flights, and expert handling of dangerous situations are what the flying public expects from pilots. Even if we all have to pay a little more, it's worth it to know that the people into whose hands we place our lives every time we step on an airplane are worthy of that trust.

Sources: The synopsis of the NTSB final report on the crash of Flight 3407 can be found at Cleese's "Airline Pilots Sketch" is currently online at My previous blogs on this incident can be found in the entries for Feb. 12 and May 18, 2009.

Monday, February 01, 2010

An Economic Prophecy for Engineers—And Everyone Else

"When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him."—Deuteronomy 18:22

"The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender."—Proverbs 22:7

Without modern economies, engineering would be a shadow of its present self, if it existed at all. Huge capital investments in plant, equipment, and R&D needed for advanced engineering require equally huge, smoothly functioning economies. And anything that fundamentally threatens such economies is worth the attention of engineers and everyone else.

The two Old Testament excerpts above have been much on my mind the last week or so. The selection from Deuteronomy says prophets whose predictions don't come true can be safely ignored. One might expect also the converse to be true: that is, prophets whose predictions are verified deserve at least a little attention, although anyone can make a lucky guess from time to time. The context in which I have been thinking about borrowers being servants of lenders is the fact that for at least the last decade, the U. S. government's debt has been underwritten largely by foreign investment, from China to the sovereign wealth funds of numerous other countries. My worries on that score were allayed by the fact that China, for example, though it holds billions of dollars of Treasury bonds and other debt, has no motivation to do anything bad to us, since we are their largest market in many areas, and destroying one's main market is not a smart thing to do.

But then I read Aftershock by David and Robert Wiedemer (brothers) and Cindy Spitzer.

This writing team published America's Bubble Economy in 2006, which allegedly forecast the broad outlines of the 2008 financial crisis and real-estate crash pretty accurately. (I haven't read it, so I say "allegedly," but I have no reason to doubt this is basically true.) In Aftershock, the authors say that there are actually six bubbles, not just the real-estate bubble, and only four of them have popped or are in the process of popping: real estate, the U. S. stock market, private debt, and discretionary spending. All these areas fed on each other during the expansion phase of the last several decades. Similarly, the collapse of real-estate markets has cut off sources for private debt, discouraged discretionary spending, and put downward pressure on the stock market, leading to a complex vicious circle that is yet to finish its dirty work.

The other two bubbles yet to pop are the dollar bubble and the U. S. government debt bubble. And when these two go, life in many ways will never be the same, according to the Wiedemers and Spitzer.

Why? Because the supposedly safe haven of U. S. Treasury bonds, the place where smart money all around the world goes when things get bad, will turn into a rat hole. How? When non-U. S. purchasers of Treasury bonds quit buying them as enthusiastically as they have in the past, this will force the Federal Reserve to print dollars to keep the government running. This has already started to happen, and when it gathers steam there will be nothing to prevent a huge burst of hyperinflation—on the order of 100% a year. Places like Israel and Argentina have undergone such disasters, but not since the Revolutionary War has the U. S. experienced such a thing.

Of course, in a democracy the politicians can't let hyperinflation go on for long, or else their careers are toast. But the only alternative will be severe cutbacks in government spending, which will finish the inaugural phase of a multi-year worldwide depression from which the U. S. will emerge much chastened, but wiser.

When will all this start to snowball? In one to three years, according to Aftershock, which was completed in the summer of 2009.

What should the individual do if these folks are right? Their advice is to get out of debt to the extent possible, then get out of the stock market into cash or short-term equivalents (money market funds, U. S. Treasury funds), and when the inflation gets going, pitch all that and buy gold.

I am no financial expert, and I will state right here that my only venture into metals trading happened in 1980, when I managed to buy $500 worth of silver coins at $19 an ounce, the exact time when (unbeknownst to me) the Texas Hunt brothers were cornering the silver market and forcing it to a high which—thirty years later—it has yet to achieve again. A worse investment choice could hardly be imagined. So it will take a lot of confirmation and events going the way the Wiedemers say they will, before I will even consider fooling with metals trading again. But I am certainly going to keep my eye on things for the next few years, and if events start to match up according to the Aftershock scenario, I will take their dire forecasts more seriously.

For the sake of the U. S. economy and everyone who relies on it, and for the sake of young engineers just starting their careers, I hope that Aftershock is wrong, and things go back to normal or better soon. Getting a job these days is hard enough, and hyperinflation and the government going broke is not going to help matters. But as the authors themselves point out, money isn't everything, and those who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s went on to become the Greatest Generation who fought World War II. Still, I feel that once I read the book, I should let people know about it and allow them to draw their own conclusions. I am more than halfway convinced Aftershock is right. But the only way to be sure is to wait and see.

Sources: Aftershock is published by John Wiley & Sons (2010). I learned about the book from a review in National Review Online at