Monday, August 30, 2010

The Chilean Mine Accident: Bad News and Good News

On August 5 of this year, the upper galleries of the San Jose gold and copper mine near the town of Copiapo in northern Chile collapsed. Thirty-three miners were more than 2,000 feet underground when the collapse occurred, and for more than two weeks no definite signs of life were detected. But on Aug. 22, a week ago Sunday, a drill pulled back out of a borehole drilled in an attempt to reach a rescue chamber near the bottom of the mine had a note attached to it, saying that all 33 miners were alive and reasonably well, considering. They had retreated to the chamber after the collapse and managed to make the three-day supply of food and water last 17 days. Intense efforts are continuing to drill a borehole wide enough to get the miners out to the surface, but estimates are that it will take several months. In the meantime, authorities are sending supplies of food and water and psychological aids such as telephone lines down the boreholes so the miners can talk with their families.

This has got to be one of the most dramatic mine accidents in recent memory, and one that potentially has a happy ending. If the miners don’t succumb to disease (their skin is already being affected by the hot, damp conditions) and manage to clear the thousands of tons of rubble the man-sized borehole will cause (there’s no other way to clear it), and don’t flip out and do something terrible like committing mass suicide, they could all survive to sign book contracts and do national speaking tours. That’s a long chain of “ifs,” but they obviously have enough self-discipline to have made it this far. None of the news reports I’ve seen mention religious faith, but my guess is that is playing a significant positive role too.

The bad news was that the mine collapsed in the first place. A helpful diagram on the Wikipedia page “Chile mining accident” shows why even one collapse in a gallery in this particular mine could trap the miners. I don’t know about you, but my mental image of mines is based on the old 1960s-encyclopedia pictures of coal mining as it was done in England and the eastern U. S. back then. Several vertical shafts with elevators were connected by horizontal galleries, like the floors in a high-rise office building. In this format, if one gallery collapsed you at least had a chance to turn around and run to one of the three or four vertical shafts.

The Chilean mine, by contrast, is a gold and copper mine run by a small private firm with a less-than-stellar safety record. It is in the form of a tall spiral, like an old-fashioned bedspring. The single gallery loops in and out of the valuable veins of ore, and meanwhile slopes gently downward at an incline that can be managed by either motorized vehicles or just miners walking. No vertical shafts (except for ventilation), no expensive elevators—and no way out if the single spiral gallery collapses anywhere along its length. And that is exactly what happened on Aug. 5, apparently in a couple of places. So part of the bad news (other than the collapse itself) is that this form of mine is very vulnerable to gallery collapse—there’s really no other way out, unless you count ventilation shafts (and apparently the only one large enough to get the miners out collapsed on Aug. 7).

Allowing for this possibility, the mine owners installed a safety chamber at the bottom of the spiral with enough food and water to last three days. I suppose the thought was that any collapse would be minor enough to be cleared in that length of time. Apparently, the cave-ins were so severe that much of the old spiral gallery is destroyed, hence the drilling attempts direct from the surface. Fortunately, the ventilation shaft leading from the safety chamber to the surface was undamaged, so suffocation was never a serious threat. Starvation and dehydration were, though. It will be fascinating to hear how the miners fared and how they organized themselves to survive what has to be one of the most harrowing situations imaginable—being trapped almost half a mile underground, not knowing when or if you would be rescued, and trying to survive on almost no provisions. The fact that they’ve done so is the good news, so far.

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera (there are diacritical markings in his name that I can’t get this blog type to do) has properly made this disaster the focus of his attention, and personally issues important news about it. A large state-owned mine is in charge of the rescue efforts, including the human-size borehole. So it looks like the government of Chile responded promptly and is doing everything humanly possible to rescue the miners.

This event comes at a time when we are commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster in which our U. S. government did less than cover itself with glory, shall we say. The two disasters are very different: the mine is a single, specific technical challenge whose victims are already disciplined and familiar with their situation; while Katrina involved millions of average citizens, a huge geographic area, and a tangle of interlocking and conflicting political lines of authority that made an already bad situation worse. But still, we could learn some lessons from the Chilean situation.

For one thing, people who live in flood-prone areas ought to have some basic training and physical resources to be able to deal with floods if they come. An evacuation plan that was actually practiced and taught to the public, and some requirement for people to have emergency provisions wouldn’t be that difficult, and would have gone far to mitigate the terrible disaster that Katrina became.

And for another thing, government isn’t always the problem. There is a distressing tendency in some circles of U. S. politics today to view all government, at whatever level, and all government employees, as automatically corrupt, wasteful, and even malicious. While not denying that all three characteristics are to be found somewhere in government, I would point out the danger of lowered expectations. If good, selfless public servants constantly hear nothing but unwarranted criticism, they may figure “Well, everybody thinks I’m a no-good crook, so I might as well go ahead and be one.” If we’re not careful, we will get the government such an attitude deserves. And nobody will be better off in that case.

Sources: Besides the Wikipedia article mentioned, I used material from the following news items on Yahoo (from Associated Press) and ABC News, respectively: and

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Harmful Effects of Text

A couple of weeks ago, we took a ride on a tour boat at San Antonio’s River Walk. Over the decades, the city has taken what started out as a glorified drainage ditch and transformed it into a tourist attraction, complete with shops, restaurants, hotels, historic sites, and nice sidewalks on each side of the not-very-deep “river,” which is actually as tamed and controlled as anything you’ll see at Six Flags. At one point on the tour, the guide pointed out a place where the sidewalk on one side of the river took a sudden jog to the left, so that if you kept going straight you’d walk into the river. He said he was watching the other day as a well-dressed businesswoman came down the sidewalk, busily engaged in texting on her cellphone. The next thing he knew, she’d walked straight into the river, which was fortunately only about four feet deep at that point. She kept her cool enough to hold her phone way above her head to keep it dry as passersby helped her out. I wonder what the person on the other end thought was going on.

Any portable technology that engages our visual attention is potentially capable of causing such problems. I’m sure that once it became possible to print books that were small enough to carry in one hand and read while walking, the occasional absent-minded scholar in 16th-century Bologna was seen to walk over the edge of a quay into the Po River while reading Dante. But texting engages one’s attention more than reading does. I say this not from personal experience but from observation, since my personal view of texting is rather dim. The one-two-three stroke business on the numeric keypad reeks of compromise, and so do the miniature typewriter keyboards with keys that are easily usable only by children who are too young to write. But obviously, young people have taken to texting, and even some people my age, though it does seem to appeal to women in their 50s more than men.

Like any other communications technology, texting brings people more in contact with each other, and most ethical systems view that as basically a good thing. So if you put texting under the microscope of engineering ethics, it’s fair to say that it is innocent until specific charges prove it guilty in one way or another. Of course, there are times and places where texting is plain wrong, such as when you’re driving a car, bus, or train. And accidents have been traced to just such texting, as the National Traffic Safety Board found in the September 2008 crash of a commuter train in Chatsworth, California that killed 25 people when the driver’s attention was distracted by texting. But in such cases of flagrant misconduct, texting can be at worst charged with being an accessory to the crime. With good training and good sense, we can avoid most such accidents.

Part of these problems with texting accidents is simply inexperience. People try all sorts of things with new technologies, things that the developers can never dream of, and in the nature of things, some of the new uses just don’t work out. That lady who walked straight into the river is going to be a lot more careful about where she is the next time she starts texting. Maybe we’ll have laws about instant dismissal of any train or bus operators caught texting on the job. We are still only a few years down the learning curve on texting, so a lot of these issues will lessen in frequency and severity with time.

Then there is the slippery-slope argument that texting is one more step down a path that leads to a nation or world of isolated wired androids, half human and half technology, each enmeshed in one’s own little cocoon of gizmos, and regarding plain old-fashioned person-to-person meetings as ancient relics of an energy-wasteful dark age. The slightly creepy thing about texting is that you can do it without anybody near you (in real space) noticing. On a recent trip, I was about to remind my wife to call my sister when she told me she’d been texting her for the last twenty minutes, and everything was all arranged.

There are good aspects to texting compared to actual talking on the cellphone. In a world where everybody texted rather than talked, there’d be no one-sided private or intimate conversations carried on in the setting of a public bus or train. And deaf people must have rejoiced when the first text-capable cellphones came out. So compared to the original use of cellphones, texting has its positive aspects from a noise-abatement point of view.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the actual operation of texting could be improved. Maybe they’ll develop eye-position-reading technology to where you just have to look at the letters on an on-screen display in sequence to make them appear in the text. This kind of technology is still in human-factors labs now, but a lot of stuff out there in the consumer market now started in research labs a few years ago. That way you wouldn’t use your fingers for anything except holding the phone. Or, we could promote a technique that has been proved in head-to-head contests to yield the fastest one-handed electronic communications possible: Morse code, which uses only one key (it's all in the timing of the dots and dashes). I heard about a TV show in which the producers rounded up a couple of teenagers who claimed they could text really fast, and then found a couple of old-time radio amateurs (probably about my age) who were CW whizzes. “CW” stands for “continuous wave” which is ham lingo for Morse code. The two teams were handed the same text to send, and the Morse guys beat out the texting teenagers by sending and receiving about twice as fast. I am told that there are a few apps out there which let you send and receive Morse instead of text, and to me, it makes sense. Morse is just another language, like French, and if we just taught it to everybody along with cursive writing (if anyone still learns that), we could get rid of all this one-two-three business and Lilliputian keyboards and, hey, why stop there? How about a one-key computer? You read it here first.

Sources: The San Antonio River Walk’s official website is Check it out the next time you’re in San Antonio. I’d give the tour guide’s name if I could remember it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Toyota's Acceleration Problem: No Smoking Gun Yet

According to a preliminary report by U. S. regulators looking into the accusations that some Toyotas have an electronic flaw that makes them accelerate unexpectedly, no sign of such a problem was found in any of the 58 cars involved in incidents that the regulators investigated so far. The report reinforces claims by Toyota that there are no electronic flaws to be found, and that drivers who say their cars took off by themselves probably hit the accelerator by mistake.

I blogged on this issue back on March 6 and April 12 of this year, first to criticize Toyota for mishandling public relations surrounding the incident, and then to back off on my own opinion that they were to blame. Toyota has since paid a $16 million fine for not notifying the government fast enough about the problem, whatever its cause was. And they have supplied the Feds with ten of the data readers that were so scarce at the beginning of the investigation—only one operable unit was in the entire United States to begin with. So at least when it comes to public and government relations, Toyota seems to be learning some lessons there.

The question remains open whether some other technical problem could have been causing the accidents that are the focus of many lawsuits. Advocates for these suits, as you might expect, claim that the government investigation looked in the wrong places. The investigation is not over by any means. Experts at NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are still looking into the possibility that electromagnetic interference, for example, could have caused the problem. That is a subject I know a little bit about and have some experience with.

One day I was doing an experiment in my lab that involved a high-voltage discharge that made a pretty powerful electromagnetic impulse. All of a sudden, right after I fired the discharge the laptop I was using for taking data locked up. I discovered that the impulse was traveling down some wires to the laptop and giving it temporary paralysis. I improved the shielding on my setup and eventually got things to work again.

Unless there are unusual circumstances, electromagnetic interference with computers usually acts like a blunt instrument, causing low-level communications errors that most systems will react to by just freezing up. I suppose the automotive equivalent of freezing up would be for the whole car to quit running, not for the accelerator to stick on maximum. From my relatively uninformed viewpoint, I would say that electromagnetic interference is unlikely to do the particular thing that the plaintiffs claim it did.

I am no psychologist, but I expect that the surprise and fear engendered by a sudden acceleration of a car you’re driving might cause you to freeze up yourself, rendering you both incapable of figuring out what you’re doing with the pedals, and of realizing that in fact you have jammed your foot on the accelerator and not the brake. So I don’t accuse all the plaintiffs in these suits of bad faith. I expect that most of them sincerely believe they did nothing wrong and the car just took off by itself. But without having the floorboard equipped with a camera and recording system to show what really happened (will that be an option on next year’s Toyotas?), or unless the onboard “black box” was subsequently activated by a high-velocity accident, there is really no way to tell what happened in the majority of the alleged cases. So those cases will be matters for judges and juries to sort out, not scientific investigators.

As I pointed out in my second post last spring, history shows a record of periodic flurries of sudden-acceleration lawsuits that crop up from time to time, sort of like seven-year locusts. There is a constant supply of accidents in which drivers (generally older ones) hit accelerators by mistake, and all that is needed to generate a spate of lawsuits against a given auto maker is one or two well-publicized cases in which the plaintiffs accuse the manufacturer of a safety defect that caused the sudden-acceleration crash. The plaintiffs are obviously not unbiased observers in these cases, since if they prove to a jury that it was the carmaker’s incompetence, and not the driver’s stupidity or carelessness, that was at fault, they stand to make big bucks, as do their (generally) contingency-fee lawyers. (Though this is not the place to debate the ethics of contingency-fee lawyering, I have negative opinions about it.) With the exception of the floor-mat problem, which was a real flaw and thoroughly, though tardily, recalled and fixed by Toyota, it is beginning to look like this was just the latest of a long series of unintended-acceleration flaps that have popped up on and off for many years.

The only way this kind of thing can be put to rest altogether is for the car manufacturers to perfect one-hundred-percent autopiloted cars. I for one look forward to the day of the electronic chauffeur. I can take driving or leave it, and the idea of treating my private car like a train ride—reading, making phone calls, and doing whatever else is convenient to do in an automobile when you are not distracted by the tedious task of driving the thing—is quite appealing to me. And if the car is fixed so the driver can’t accelerate, brake, steer or do anything other than tell the thing where to go, then you automatically eliminate driver error. Of course, anything that goes wrong after that is indubitably the automaker’s fault, which may be one reason this vision will be long in coming. I for one look forward to it. But then, I’m not a lawyer.

Sources: Nick Bunkley’s article on the National Highway Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report to Congress is at

P. S. I have started another blog entitled “Electronic Memories” at which I will post from time to time memoirs of a youth and adolescence spent among solder, batteries, and oscilloscopes. For those who may be interested in such things, it can be found at

Monday, August 09, 2010

Will The Net Stay Neutral If Google Doesn't Want It To?

In a perceptive article in Slate last week, Tim Wu noted with some alarm the news reports that Google was working with Verizon to arrange for paid preferential treatment of Google's content on Verizon's networks. Although Google officially denied the reports, some insiders say otherwise, according to Wu. And considering the size and influence of both Google and Verizon, something like this could affect most of us who use the Net, which nowadays means most of us, period.

Net neutrality is democracy applied to packets. In keeping with the original vision of many of the Internet's founders, a truly neutral net treats every server and every user the same, to the extent possible technically. Obviously, some websites can get overwhelmed by traffic and some Internet connections are slower than others, but these are issues at the ends of the communications link, not matters determined by the way the Internet is set up and operated.

As long as there is enough bandwidth to go around, net neutrality is a fairly easy thing to maintain. But in limited-bandwidth situations such as newer wireless technologies, companies that get in early with fresh business models adapted to the new technologies can sometimes play the neutrality of the web to their advantage. (Think Apple with its tightly-controlled but growing crop of iPhone apps.) This may be why Google may be talking to Verizon about ways it could pay the network to give its sites a boost in terms of speed, access, or other advantages. But this would violate the time-honored principle of net neutrality, which Google itself has promoted in the past, according to Wu. He hopes the Federal Communications Commission will gird up its legal loins, so to speak, and start issuing rules that will protect net neutrality from intrusions of what Wu terms "internet payola."

From an ethical point of view, what concerns me about this matter may not be so much whether the net stays neutral or not, as much as whether we'd know about it if net neutrality is abandoned. The term "payola" arose back in the 1950s when record companies secretly paid pop radio stations to play certain tunes more often. The dishonest part was that these payments were not disclosed to the listeners—people who heard the tunes more often just thought the stations were honestly responding to public demand. Payola is a form of corruption in which supposedly unbiased gatekeepers are being secretly paid to promote certain products over others. It's in the same moral category as the bribing of judges: payments for favors goes against the stated principles of the institution. So the secrecy aspect is an essential feature of the problem.

Suppose Google goes out and spends X billion dollars buying favorable treatment from Verizon and other networks, and then publicly brags that you're going to get better access because Google has paid for it. That might look like bullying by the big boy on the block, and other websites without such deep pockets might protest that it's unfair, but at least everyone would know what's going on. We would no longer have an institution called "net neutrality," true, but we would at least know the new rules of the game. This would be different than if Google paid for these favors and didn't tell anybody, keeping net neutrality in appearance but not in reality. And that would be a problem.

It's a little creepy to think about the Internet's hundredth birthday (which I certainly won't see). Its half-century mark will come around 2033, which is only 23 years from now. Will the present basic form and function of the Internet still be around then, or will we look on it as something akin to the giant railway networks that once crisscrossed the U. S., only to be superseded by highways and airports? Suppose nearly everything moves to wireless by then: that might mean Apple's iPhone way of doing business prevails, and what kind of network experience you have would critically depend on what kind of hardware you own, which isn't the case now. That kind of thing gives Google the creeps.

Something that will not change, however, is the basic principle that any obstructions to any port of a communications network harm the system in a way that affects everyone else, and the bigger the system, the more harm is done. This is because the value of a network to any one user depends on how many other nodes can be reached. So a multi-tiered "Internet" with fast lanes and slow lanes would be that much less valuable, because reducing access to any part of the network lowers its value to everyone.

For this reason alone, we are not likely to see significant future fragmentation of the current form of the Internet, ethics or no ethics. This principle has triumphed time and again in the history of telecommunications, going all the way back to the telegraph, which originally served mainly wealthy clients who used it for business transactions. And for various reasons, both economic and regulatory, the telegraph companies never really got it. The idea of truly universal service didn't come along until the newer telephone network was consolidated in the early 1900s, by which time the Bell System had figured out this more-the-merrier principle. The principle of telephones for everyone sounded democratic and patriotic, and it was, but it was also plain good business sense.

So while we can worry if we like that Google is going to pay for the end of net neutrality, I suspect experience with such a system would soon show that it militates against the more-the-merrier principle, which would be violated by making a few nodes better, because it really just amounts to making all the other nodes worse. As long as Google, or anybody else, tells us what they're up to, I see no fundamental ethical problem with it. But I don't think it would end up working as well as they might hope.

Sources: Tim Wu's article, "Evil? The alleged Google-Verizon deal that's endangering net neutrality," appeared in the Aug. 6 online edition of Slate at

Monday, August 02, 2010

Do Borders Matter in Engineering?

Stephen Unger, one of the deans and founders of the field of engineering ethics, is concerned about the fates of engineering and high-tech employment in the U. S. He recently pointed out to me an article by Andy Grove, founder of Intel, in which Grove pointed out the current crisis in manufacturing employment in the U. S. It turns out that for every U. S. resident employed by many high-tech companies such as Apple, Dell, and so on, there are about ten Chinese employees who either work for the same firm or make the products that the company sells. This trend started back in the 1980s when what was then called “consumer electronics” manufacturing (mostly TVs and radios) went into a steep decline in the U. S. while Japan and then China took up the slack. To critics who say this doesn’t matter as long as the high-value-added jobs such as R&D and finance stay in the U. S., Grove says basically, “bunk.” He calls for a frankly protectionist tax on all imported high-tech goods, with the money coming from the tax going to people who are willing to scale up small startups into full-scale U. S. manufacturing efforts.

I will not comment on the political feasibility of such a solution, except to say that it would be quite disruptive if enacted. But sometimes a short, sudden disruption is better medicine than allowing a disease to go on and on until the patient can no longer recover.

The question I really want to address is: do borders matter in engineering?

On the one hand, modern science-based engineering is a truly universal profession. Go to an engineering conference of a hundred or more attendees, and you are very likely to meet people from all over the globe in just a few minutes. The technical language of engineering is the same everywhere: Ohm’s law, Maxwell’s equations, and all the rest. Even in the commercial world, unless strong political forces dictate otherwise, engineering teams are made up of people from many countries, ethnicities, and faiths, who can work together harmoniously without allowing their diverse backgrounds to interfere with getting the job done.

Would the world really be a better place if all engineers considered themselves as simply citizens of the world, taking no pride and holding no affection for their native lands? You can imagine some advantages to this. It would be hard to find any engineers to work on military projects, for instance, since all wars would then become civil wars and no upstanding world citizen would support such a thing.

The answer to the question reveals one’s core beliefs about the purpose of life and society. If there really is such a thing as true good (and therefore true evil), the ordering of life by a polis—a city-state, as Aristotle referred to it—is necessary to preserve good and combat evil. When I first began to study the classic texts of ethics seriously, I was somewhat dismayed to find that the ancient writers spent much of their time talking about politics, broadly defined as the right ordering of public life. And since the alternatives to citizenship in a particular country—namely, total anarchy or one-world government—are either unthinkable or impossible, every engineer has to decide how to relate to the government under which he or she lives.

There is no such thing as world citizenship, no matter how much people might like it if there was. The way the world is set up, people are born into a particular place at a particular time, and thereafter have to deal with the circumstances that life hands them, including the government of the country where they were born.

Most people have little or no choice as to where they live, and under what government they live. Most immigration around the world is internal, from countrysides to cities, which is why so many of the world’s largest cities are growing at an insupportable rate. Once in a city, sometimes people can accumulate enough capital to emigrate to a country that will take them in. In most parts of the world, emigration is not only possible but widely practiced, and for all its flaws, the United States seems to be one of the places that people all over the world would prefer to live in.

I think they’re right. Our polis is founded on principles that I find to be very compatible with my own system of ethics and religion, and I believe it is worth preserving and enriching. Part of the work of preservation and enrichment involves making sure that the people who live here can earn a decent living. And since so much of our economy depends on technology, perhaps some measures along the lines of what Andy Grove calls for would be at least worth considering. I am not an economist and can’t say whether Grove is right about his proposal. But I will say that I think his heart is in the right place, and borders should matter to an engineer—not in a jingoistic, my-country-right-or-wrong sense, but in a realistic sense that recognizes the great worth of good countries and the need to preserve them against forces that work for their decline.

Sources: The article pointed out to me by Stephen Unger, whom I thank for the information, is at the Bloomberg News website