Sunday, June 27, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Two Months and Counting

I have already blogged a couple of times on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but since it has now gained the dubious honor of being the worst environmental accident in U. S. history, it's time to pay it some more attention.

Apparently most but not all of the leaking oil is now being captured and disposed of by storage or flaring, some 24,000 barrels a day. Since April 20, however, the date of the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform that killed eleven people and started the spill, more oil has gone into the Gulf than was spilled during the previous U. S. record-holding accident, the Exxon Valdez. That was a tanker accident, which had the advantage that once all of it spilled out of the tanker, there wasn't any more left. Obviously that is not the case in the Gulf, where an incredibly productive old-fashioned gusher on the ocean floor has been throwing out swimming pools of oil every day or so.

I mentioned in my first blog that this might be a game-changing incident for the offshore oil industry. In the short term, that proved correct when President Obama placed a six-month moratorium on all Gulf oil drilling. Just last week a judge blocked execution of that order, and we will have to wait and see if it sticks, putting thousands more oil workers out of work, probably sending most of the active rigs elsewhere so the owners can recoup their huge investments, and possibly—just possibly—preventing another accident like the Deepwater Horizon. But my guess is that this has put the fear of, if not God, the federal government, into every other drilling organization, and they are probably running the safest operations they have for many years.

Will offshore oil operations be run any differently from now on than they have been up to now? Right now it is hard to say, but one thing is certain: if the safety record improves in the future, it will be because both technical people and managerial types work together to make an already pretty good technology even better. For a technology wonk like me, just the technical details of how they're doing things right now are fascinating.

Today Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commander in overall charge of the recovery operation, described how the capping wells are being drilled. For most of the distance, the same directional drilling techniques are used that are common elsewhere in the world. It is an "open-loop" process, in that the drill goes in a particular direction determined by internal navigation systems, not by any feedback from the place where they want to get to.

But now that the hole is within a thousand or two feet of the original well, they have gone to a different method. Every so often they pull the drill string (the column of interconnected pipes attached to the drill bit) and run a sensing instrument down the hole. At the end of the hole, it "listens" for magnetic fields due to the presence of the original problem well's casing, and gives a direction and distance reading to the drillers. Armed with this knowledge, they readjust their steering, drill another couple hundred feet, and then do it all over again. Once they're just a few feet away, they know they can go straight ahead and they'll hit the casing—but this time they will be prepared with plenty of mud to stop the thing up.

Maybe I'm strange, being technically inclined, but learning this little detail about how the capping wells are being drilled makes me feel better about the whole situation. I'm not a Louisiana shrimpboat captain sitting on his hands and wondering whether to go into another line of work, and for those folks I don't think this knowledge would be much solace. But as we pointed out earlier, the same type of people—technical experts—who caused the problem are the ones best qualified to fix it. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter for managers, regulators, legislators, and the general public to decide. But right now, we have to trust the technical types to make things better, and learning how they're going about it is reassuring to me, even though it's a tedious and expensive process that will take another several weeks to complete.

Many people want to use this accident as a reason for reconsidering our nation's energy policy as a whole. The ethanol industry, for example, is boasting about how you never see pictures of gulls and cranes drenched in spilled ethanol. In principle, I think this would be a good thing. We as a country depend too much on one type of energy source, and our dependence has gotten us in a lot of trouble in the past. But the difficulty is how to get there from here to there: how to move from the way we are now to a situation that would be fair to most people, not result in disproportionate advantages or disadvantages to certain industries or political pressure groups, and not cause huge economic or political disruptions that would make the cure look worse than the disease. Doing this with the democratic process is hard, and doing it in a top-down expert-designed way would be fraught with unintended consequences. Perhaps this disaster will indeed lead to a more unified view of our present situation and more consensus about what we should do. But first we need to get it over with, and not make any hasty, ill-considered decisions in the midst of the crisis.

Sources: Adm. Allen's June 27, 2010 press briefing transcript is posted at

Monday, June 21, 2010

Engineering Ethics In the Movies: The Bridge On the River Kwai

In 1957, World War II was nearly as recent to people living then as the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks are to us today. So when a film was released that year about British and American servicemen working in a Japanese prison camp to build a bridge for important railway supply line through Burma (now Myanmar), the story had an emotional punch simply because it was about a recent war that many viewers fought in personally. But even now, half a century later, "The Bridge On the River Kwai" throws a strong light on a perennial problem in engineering ethics: getting the larger picture of what you as an engineer are doing.

I won't worry about giving you a spoiler alert here, because even if you know how it turns out, it's the kind of story that's good enough to watch anyway. The tale pivots on the personality of Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), a British officer captured by the Japanese in Burma, along with a couple hundred of his officers and men. The first part of the movie is a test of wills between Saito, the prison-camp commandant, and Nicholson. Saito insists that the officers must do manual labor along with the men; Nicholson and his officers refuse, citing the Geneva Convention prohibiting it. In revenge, Saito claps the officers in a tiny cell and puts Nicholson in a "hot box": an iron shed exposed to the tropical sun for days. Saito, under pressure to build a railway bridge across a nearby river by a deadline only a couple of months away, eventually sees that he's getting nowhere, and uses a Japanese holiday as an excuse to give in to Nicholson's demands. In return, Nicholson seizes on the bridge project as a way to instill order and discipline in his men, and returns to effective command.

The rest of the movie is a penetrating psychological study of how a person (in particular, an engineer, though the point is relevant to anyone engaged on a challenging project) can become captivated by a technical challenge to the exclusion of its wider purpose and effects. Until Nicholson assumes responsibility for the bridge, the Japanese have been fluffing the job. They selected the wrong site where the river bottom is too soft and the uncooperative prisoners have encumbered the work at every opportunity. Nicholson initially justifies tackling the project with a sincere desire to do the best he can as a way to show the Japanese the superiority of British discipline and know-how. And he succeeds. His engineering-trained officers have built bridges like this before, and despite setbacks Nicholson and his men complete the structure the day before a train of dignitaries is scheduled to cross it for the first time. Ironically, Nicholson eventually asks his officers to do manual labor in his rush to finish the bridge—breaking the very same principle he insisted on keeping in his battle with Saito earlier.

In a parallel story, an American sailor who escaped from the camp earlier has joined a British commando team who have made their way through the jungle to place explosives under the river surface in order to blow up the same bridge. After many struggles, they manage to do this on the night before the first train is supposed to arrive, and station a man downstream with a plunger-type detonator to blow it up as the train crosses the bridge.

All is well for this plan until Nature intervenes: overnight, the river level falls, revealing the detonator cable here and there rising from the receding water. Tension among the commandos runs high as that morning, Nicholson strolls out to view "his" bridge, even stopping to admire a commemorative plaque he placed on the bridge that says British troops built the bridge on such-and-such a date. When he spots a suspicious-looking cable sticking up above the water, he calls Saito and they climb down to trace the path of the cable along the bank. Just as they reach the detonator, one of the commandos opens fire and mortally wounds Nicholson. At the very last moment, he realizes with horror that for the last two months he has been aiding the enemy. Gasping, "What have I done?" he falls on the detonator, and the bridge blows just as the train is crossing it.

Now, there are engineers opposed to war of any form, and even they have a spokesman in the movie. One of Nicholson's officers is given the last word of the film: after witnessing the tragic end of the project, he says simply, "Madness," and to that extent you can view the entire movie as a kind of anti-war epic. But given the assumption of most of the characters that the war was a necessary evil, clearly Nicholson allowed his pride in technical accomplishment to overcome his judgment about how a given project (the bridge) fit into the larger scheme of things.

Many engineers eventually become managers, but that doesn't mean they can leave engineering ethics behind. The men under Nicholson's command were basically tools that he could bend to his will. It took the British commando team to remind Nicholson that Japan was the enemy, and the Geneva-convention rules applied to everyone, not just the Japanese. Like many problems in engineering ethics, the film presents a complex situation, though it was simplified for dramatic intensity. While reality is not usually as dramatic as the film portrayed it, the story highlights the kinds of questions that engineers still face today: What am I really doing? What is its real purpose? Am I doing this just because I enjoy the technical challenge, or because it genuinely contributes to the good of society? These are all questions that every engineer should ponder from time to time. And if you have a chance to check out "The Bridge On the River Kwai," do it. It's a great film.

Sources: Besides the DVD of the film, the Internet Movie Database ( has a good detailed plot synopsis which I referred to.

Monday, June 14, 2010

K-12 Engineering Education: Will it Help?

Poetry, it is said, is the clear expression of mixed emotions. I will forgo inflicting upon my readers an example of my poetic gifts, such as they are, but mixed emotions are definitely what I felt when I read a recent New York Times story about a school district in New Jersey that is teaching engineering to children in kindergarten. Or trying to, anyway.

At Clara E. Colemen Elementary in Glen Rock, New Jersey, all students from fifth graders right down to kindegarten are exposed to at least ten hours a year of something that can be optimistically described as engineering education. For the kindergarteners, who can't yet spell engineering (or anything else), this takes the form of imagining how they could make the three little pigs' house less vulnerable to high-velocity winds blown by the huffing puffing wolf. As a spokesman for the American Society of Engineering Education pointed out, this is not learning engineering so much as it is learning about engineering, but still, it's a move in the right direction. Assuming, that is, that you think the teaching of engineering belongs in elementary school at all.

And here's where the mixed emotions come in. Speaking for myself, I would have been thrilled if I had been given an opportunity to study anything related to engineering when I was that age. But as things were run in a medium-quality Texas school district in the 1960s, I had to make do with things like bringing samples of my self-assigned battery-powered electrical projects to show-and-tell, and reading the articles on oil refining in the encyclopedia during recess. The view then was that first we teach them how to read, write, and do elementary math, along with things like world history, art, and U. S. citizenship. There will be plenty of time for them to find out about professions like engineering, law, or medicine when they can at least have a basic understanding of how and why such things are done.

I personally disagreed with such an approach. Much later in life, I was told that one day I came home from my first day in fourth grade looking particularly disgusted. When my mother asked me what the problem was, I said, "When am I going to be able to take physics?" The reply was discouraging, to say the least.

So from a purely personal perspective, I am jealous of all those kids out there (and the Glen Rock school is by no means unique) who are getting to build paper-hedgehog levitators, hyperventilating-wolf safeguard mechanisms, and other things that pass under the label of engineering, broadly defined.

But here's where the mixed emotions come in. I was an unusual child, in the sense of being a statistical outlier. There are simply not that many fourth-graders hankering for a dose of Newton's Laws, or at least there weren't in my day. One can question the wisdom of taking a perceived national need for more engineers (which at some level or other is always a chronic problem, especially if you talk to industrial representatives at any time except during the depths of a recession) and thereby justifying the presentation of a particular singled-out profession to young children, most of whom will not become engineers. From the descriptions, it sounds like mathematics is not a prominent feature of most of these programs, at least at the lower levels. That may well be appropriate, since a lot of what engineers do is enabled by math, but not fundamentally based on it. People were building sheds and houses without benefit of anything beyond basic arithmetic for millennia, after all. But by the same token, it is a stretch to describe what they were doing as engineering.

How would it look if we had a shortage of lawyers, for example (I know that is hard to imagine, but bear with me), and set aside a week or two a year in every grade to make kids dress up in fancy suits and carry briefcases and hold mock trials? It begins to sound like debating teams, and in fact that is a good place for budding lawyers to start. But I'm not aware of any debating teams that have to interrupt their sessions for nap time, and that's because the intellectual equipment needed to conduct a meaningful debate, as opposed to a playground brawl, is simply not present in most kids before the age of twelve or so.

Is the same true of engineering? Yes and no. If you are talking about the instinct to build things, well, you can find that in toddlers who like to pile blocks together and then knock them down. And for decades, toymakers have profited from selling construction kits like Erector sets, Tinkertoys, and so on, without benefit of any subsidies from the National Science Foundation or the Department of Education. It is an empirical fact that boys tend to like those kinds of toys more than girls do, and I suspect one motive behind the engineering-for-everybody movement is to get more girls interested in the subject. And to the extent it works, I say fine, but at the same time I don't expect that ten years from now we'll see the percentage of women in engineering zoom up to the perpetually-hoped-for goal of 52%, or whatever statistical parity with respect to the general population would be.

And here is a caution: if these little engineering samples in elementary school are presented badly, or poorly equipped teachers have to do it under compulsion, the whole thing might backfire. Not everything kids do in school is to their liking. The few weirdos like me will like it, but they will probably go on to be engineers or scientists anyway. But for the great majority of children to whom most of what they do in school is at best a chore or a burden, they may learn to associate the word "engineering" with tedium, frustration, and failure, which would not be what we want at all.

Sources: The New York Times article "Studying Engineering Before They Can Spell It," appeared on June 13, 2010 at It cites curriculum material developed by the Boston Museum of Science, which has been a national leader in this area.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Nuremberg Trial: Lessons for Engineers, and Everyone Else

In today's overheated political rhetoric, the word "Nazi" tends to turn up whenever someone wants to compare an act or person to ultimate evil. Though the term is in danger of becoming meaningless through overuse, the reality of Nazi Germany represented the unimaginable in wrongdoing at the time the fullness of its horrors became generally known after World War II. The extraordinary judicial proceeding by which the world learned in abundant detail of the Holocaust and related crimes against humanity was called the Nuremberg Trial, after the German city in which it was held. Lasting almost a year (from November 1945 to September 1946), this trial brought to justice some twenty-one former leaders of the Third Reich, ranging from Luftwaffe chief and Hitler right-hand man Hermann Goering to armaments and war production head Albert Speer. Judges and prosecutors of the Allied Powers (England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union) took thousands of pages of testimony, called hundreds of witnesses, examined tons of documents, and issued verdicts that condemned most, but not all, of the defendents to be hanged. The lesson I learned from recently reading a one-volume history of the proceedings is that, although the Nazi regime was a unique chapter in history, the motivations and causes for many of their heinous acts are still with us. And advances in technology mean that the same things the Nazis did crudely and inefficiently then can be done elegantly and efficiently today.

Evil does not always follow logic, but the actions of Hitler's government often followed logically from a few (wrong) premises. One detestable premise was that Jews were human vermin whose extermination was necessary before Germany could be racially purified for its alleged glorious future. Therefore, the efficient killing of Jews and other undesirable elements was a legitimate engineering goal. So German engineers experimented first with mobile execution units that used carbon monoxide in the engine's exhaust to kill a truckload of people in ten to fifteen minutes. When this method proved too slow and erratic, the famous gas chambers were designed and built so that hundreds of people packed into a space not much larger than a living room could be killed without fail inside half an hour.

Jews were not the only undesirables destined for gas chambers. Anyone whose existence imposed an economic burden on the State was a candidate for at least a concentration camp, and ultimately execution. One of the early signs of these horrors noticed by Catholic clergy during World War II was that many parishoners who had elderly or disabled relatives in rest homes and hospitals began getting messages from the government saying in effect: "Dear Blank, This is to inform you that So-and-So was recently moved to a new hospital, whereupon he contracted pneumonia and died." And the bodies were always cremated "for sanitary reasons." While the regime did not allow investigation of these reports at the time, it turned out that a plan was being implemented to move "unproductives" out of their existing care facilities to the gas chambers. In this way thousands of mentally and physically disabled citizens of the Third Reich ceased to be a burden to their fellow citizens, and in the Nazi mind contributed thereby to the wellbeing of the State.

Another charge well supported by the evidence was that "doctors" performed experiments on prisoners, not only without their consent, but with flagrant disregard for elementary standards of decency, medical ethics, or safety. People were boiled or frozen in water tanks, injected with scarlet-fever germs, had air injected into their veins, and were sterilized by hidden X-ray machines without their consent. All these things were permissible once the "doctors" made the mental transition to objectify their subjects: the prisoners were no longer human beings like their torturers, but only raw material for scientific investigation.

What are the lessons for today? I can think of three without even trying hard.

One, is that the modern state of Israel was formed largely as a way for the community of nations to apologize to the Jews for what happened to them in World War II. In Albert Speer's phrase, "No apologies are possible," but the creation of a free and independent Israel after two thousand years of exile for the Jews marked one of the bright spots in an otherwise tarnished century. There are now nations and organizations whose stated official policy is the eradication, not only of the Jewish state, but of Jews too. We have seen this before. And we have seen what it leads to. And if we haven't learned from the most horrendous chapter in the history of the twentieth century to oppose not only antisemitism wherever it is found, but organizations and states which foster it, then we are shirking our responsibility to God's special people, the Jews. The recent actions of the present U. S. administration towards Israel are not encouraging in this regard, to say the least.

Two, is that doing away with human lives that are a burden, or inconvenient, or economically unproductive, was heinous when the Nazis did it, and is just as heinous today. Abortion has been unfortunately legal in the U. S. since 1973, and euthanasia is now legal in some U. S. states. Both of these things treat human beings as inconveniences to be disposed of if they do not meet certain criteria. That is exactly what the Nazis did, and if it was wrong then, it is wrong now.

Three, the use of human embryos for research purposes is just as objectifying an action as that of a Nazi "doctor" who treated a young Jewish woman like a guinea pig to be experimented upon at his pleasure. A human embryo is just as human as you are or I am. We were both embryos at first, and until recently, the younger a person was, the more he or she was entitled to respect, compassion, and protection. The reversal by the present administration of former President George W. Bush's policy against the use of federal funds for human embryo research is a step in the direction of objectifying human beings. And the example of Nazi Germany showed us where that leads.

Sources: The book I read was The Nuremberg Trial by Joe J. Heydecker and Johannes Leeb, tr. R. A. Downie (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975). Defendant Albert Speer's closing statement before he was sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment showed a prescient insight into how technology enabled many of the Nazi horrors and threatened to allow even worse in the future (pp. 369-370): "In five or ten years' time the technique of war will have made it possible to fire rockets from continent to continent with uncanny precision. An atomic rocket, operated perhaps by only ten men, may be able to destroy a million people in the center of New York within seconds. . . . [T]his Trial must be a contribution toward preventing wars in the future and in laying down the fundamental laws of human existence. What does my fate matter, after all that has happened?"