Monday, February 28, 2011

Do Cell Phones Make Your Brain Hungry?

People are often afraid of things they don’t understand. The way cell phones work is a mystery to most people, if by “mystery” we mean something that we may understand on a basic level, but something that has indefinite levels of complexity that we do not comprehend. By that definition, most pieces of electronic gear are mysteries even to their designers, because no one person any longer has an exhaustive understanding of all the pieces that go into a cell phone: the microprocessors, the RF circuits, the digital signal processing, the details of the semiconductor fabrication design, etc. Each designer knows his or her little bit, but no one any longer understands the whole thing exhaustively.

And the mysteries of cell phones pale when compared to the mysteries of the brain. Though we have just begun to be able to measure certain things about the brain, such as how much glucose it metabolizes where, this is just like studying an advanced computer based on how much power different parts of it consume, without being able to measure the actual signals inside. In either case, you could make some broad generalizations and correlations, but detailed understanding would be beyond your grasp.

So it’s not surprising that a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showing a relationship between cell-phone use and brain metabolism got a lot of attention. The interaction between cell phones and the brain has got to be one of the most thoroughly studied matters in the history of medical science and electrical engineering. As cell phone use grew in the 1980s and 1990s, both industry and government labs studied nearly every possible way that the radio-frequency emissions from cell phones could affect the brain. No one denies that the watt-level or less power emitted from a cell phone causes a very slight warming of tissue. So does sitting out in the sun, for that matter. But if you dig down into the worst fears of the average member of the cell-phone-using public, you might find something like this: twenty years down the road, large numbers of people who have used cell phones extensively will all come down with some horrible incurable form of brain cancer and die lingering, mentally incapacitated deaths, all because they wouldn’t put down the durn phone.

The actual finding, by members of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and Brookhaven National Laboratory, was a lot less serious than that. In the normal course of business, the brain metabolizes glucose from the blood to obtain energy for its operations. This is how the brain eats, so to speak. Positron-emission tomography (PET) combined with a special type of glucose-containing chemical allows brain scientists to measure the energy consumption, as it were, of different parts of the brain in real time. When they put cell phones next to both ears of 47 healthy test subjects for 50 minutes and turned one on (presumably they didn’t tell the subjects which one was on and which one wasn’t), they found that the parts of the brain closest to the phone antenna used 35.7 micromoles of glucose per minute per 100 grams of brain tissue. The other side used 33.3 micromoles. In other words, the side of the brain nearest the phone used about 7% more glucose than the other side. They are quite confident about the statistics of this result, but say that their finding is “of unknown clinical significance.”

My own uninformed guess is that the slight heating effect of the absorbed RF waves affected the brain’s sensitive temperature-regulating mechanism, and possibly increased blood circulation in that area as a result, producing more glucose use as a side effect. Obviously, more research is required, at a minimum another study showing that this effect is repeatable. Until that is done, the scientifically responsible thing to do is to suspend judgment, not get into a panic about using cell phones.

As I have said in other contexts, engineers should not ignore the public perception that cell phone use might damage your brain in some way. It’s something the industry must deal with, and is as real as consumer attitudes about price, color, service features, or anything else to do with a product. A report by Kent German on CNET stated that the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association played up the “unknown clinical significance” aspect of the JAMA report, which is understandable. They could hardly be expected to embrace it with open arms. But as they point out, this is not the first time researchers have investigated the relationship between cell-phone use and brain activity. This study is unusual in that a definite statistical correlation was found, but whether the change in metabolism is harmful is just not known at this time. And the fact that this almost inconsequential finding has received so much publicity has to do with our attitude toward science as the ultimate authority in more and more aspects of life.

Every age has authority figures to which it looks for guidance. In the Middle Ages it was the Church, by and large. Since the nineteenth century, science has largely replaced other authorities as the recognized way of resolving questions of wider and wider significance, whether or not it makes sense to approach a problem in a scientific way, meaning armed with statistical studies and correlation calculations.

It’s hard to bear in mind that not all of life is best approached in that way. I rarely carry a cell phone, and turn it on even less often than I carry it. This is most assuredly not because I’m afraid of the RF radiation it emits. As an amateur-radio operator in my younger days, I got exposed to way more RF than most cell-phone users will take in from cell phones in their lifetimes. Once I even got burned—literally—on my thumb when I was working on an antenna, and a fellow amateur didn’t check my location before he keyed the transmitter. I am happy to report that the small scar healed in a week or so and my thumb has survived intact to this day.

I simply prefer to live my life without the added annoyance of having some telemarketer interrupt my already precarious chain of thought, or my dinner with my wife, or any number of other activities that were formerly sacrosanct from electronic perturbation. This has nothing to do with statistics, and everything to do with my sanity. Other people, including my wife, have decided differently, for good reasons. They carry cell phones and turn them on, and that is fine. If you want to limit your cell phone use for reasons to do with how you live, that makes sense. But don’t get rid of it because you’re afraid of brain cancer. There are a lot more sensible things to be afraid of, at least as far as we know now.

Sources: An abstract of the JAMA report referred to in this blog is freely accessible at, and Kent German’s Feb. 23, 2011 CNET article on the CTIA reaction (and other thoughts of his) can be found at;mlt_related.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jaron Lanier and his Six Web Commandments

You would think that a person who was doing virtual-reality experiments in the 1980s, someone who wears dreadlocks and plays obscure musical instruments professionally, and someone who just wrote a book criticizing most of what we’re familiar with about the WorldWideWeb would not have much in common. Well, they turn out to be the same person: Jaron Lanier, who is Scholar at Large with Microsoft Corporation, among several other of his hats. And he published a book last year called You Are Not a Gadget that has enough unique perspectives on engineering ethics problems to give me ideas for several blogs. Today I’ll stick to just one: the danger that the web is about to lock us into pernicious frameworks and habits that may do permanent damage to cultures worldwide.

The easiest way to understand what he’s saying is to consider the idea of the inner troll. This is Lanier’s phrase for the way normally decent and polite people sometimes turn into writers of nasty, ill-tempered, and vicious attacks in comments on blogs and other online forums, under cover of anonymity. Anyone who has spent time on popular websites where anonymous comments are allowed has noticed how ugly people tend to be when they take sides on a controversial issue. (The non-controversial ones rarely attract comments.) It doesn’t matter what the subject is, and whether the visitors are beer-drinking football fans or musicologists with perfect pitch and Ph. D’s. Sooner or later, the discussions degenerate into the kind of name-calling and personal attacks that most people still shy away from in face-to-face encounters (I hope). On some occasions involving teenagers, the pressure from hateful online mobs has even driven a few victims to suicide. Why is this?

Although Lanier isn’t sure, he has some ideas. One problem is the fact that anonymity is almost a default setting on many websites, while it takes extra effort to identify yourself in a way that can be traced back to your true name or address. This is one of the “locked-in” features of the web that is pretty hard to reverse without making folks go through a lot of identification hassle that would discourage commenting at all. Lanier explains that the first Internet users were all physicists at a few large labs, most of them knew each other, and most of them had no concern, or even a vague notion, that anyone on the web would ever be less than polite and professional. Well, this was one of those little features of human behavior that got overlooked as one of several competing versions of how the web should work took over. And now we are more or less stuck with it.

Another problem he identifies might be termed the homogenization of personhood. Contrast the old-fashioned handwritten letter from one friend to another with the impression of a person you can get from a typical Facebook page. Back in the day, you could often tell who wrote the letter simply by the handwriting style of the address on the envelope. Your friend’s handwriting became as familiar to you as his face, and everyone’s unique writing style conveyed more sense of personality, even down to repetitive phrases that could be simultaneously annoying and endearing.

By contrast, a lot of material on a Facebook page derives from a few bits that represent yes-or-no answers to a limited set of canned questions: age, sex, “single” or “attached,” and a few others. And the more skillfully a Facebook page is designed to put forward an appealing personality, the more successful it is, generally speaking, at everything but sincerity. As Lanier puts it, “The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.” While any communications medium inevitably reduces a holistic experience to a limited range of information, the digital medium of the web is particularly reductive. And because it’s so widespread, its effects may be more pervasive than any previous technology, perhaps including the invention of the printing press.

Lanier thinks that while it’s too late to change some things about the web, it’s not too late for others. He gives a list of practical suggestions that each user of the web can act on. While a few people who follow these rules will not revolutionize the web overnight, I think the philosophy behind these ideas will move us in the right direction. Here they are, from page 21 of You Are Not a Gadget:

1. Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.

2. If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.

3. Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.

4. Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.

5. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.

6. If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

If everyone followed these rules, I think the web experience for everyone would be much better. No. 1 by itself would rid the world of most spam, for instance. Of course it is idealistic to think this might happen, but that’s what ideals are for. Even if you never reach them, just by trying to you naturally go in the right direction.

At the risk of flattering my readers, I will say that I have rarely if ever encountered any Inner Trolls trying to post comments on this site. I view all the submitted comments, and allow ones in that I think contribute to the conversation, regardless of whether they agree with or oppose my own view. Most of the ones I reject are machine-generated spam or so short and content-free that there’s no point in posting them. The result is something that I think is in the spirit of Lanier’s Six Commandments. While few of my posts are the product of weeks of reflection, I do think about them for more than the hour or so it takes to write them. As I said, there is a lot more in Lanier’s book worth pondering, so you may read about him again here soon.

Sources: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier was published in 2010 by Afred A. Knopf.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Modular Nuclear Plants: About Time?

Last week, the Obama administration proposed to spend a half billion dollars over the next five years to design modular nuclear power plants that would be cheaper and easier to build than the plants we have now. The idea is a good one—the question is, will it happen?

First, why is it a good idea? What about nuclear waste? What about the dangers of terrorist attacks on the plants? What about nuclear’s unparalleled horrific legacy as the direct descendant of nuclear weapons, and the danger that nuclear fuel will end up in the wrong hands, hands that turn it into a bomb?

These are all good questions. As a practical engineer, my first thought is to look around and see if anyone’s done it right, and ask how they did it. I need look no farther than France, where the centralized government agency in charge of nuclear matters had this uniform-design modular idea, or something a lot like it, around 1965. The result? To the best of my knowledge, no one has stolen French nuclear fuel to make a weapon, no one has mounted a successful terrorist attack on a French nuclear plant, France is a leader in technology that actually recycles some nuclear waste, and most French citizens have a favorable or at least neutral view of nuclear power. Today, France generates about 70% of its electricity with an array of nuclear plants that come in only three sizes: small, medium, and large. In fact, their plants make so much electricity that France is the largest net exporter of electric power in the world. And modular, standardized construction practices are a large part of why the French nuclear effort has been such a success.

In the U. S., however, the picture is more cloudy. In 2010, only 17% of our electric power was produced by nuclear energy, and all of that was from plants at least 15 years old. No nuclear plant has been completed in the U. S. since 1996. There are several reasons for this.

Up through the 1970s, nuclear power in the U. S. was a growth industry that had a bright future. Then a couple of accidents—the Three Mile Island core meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the disastrous fire in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former USSR in 1986—cast a pall over what was already becoming an increasingly controversial way of generating power. The nuclear-plant construction industry was also partly to blame in not coming up with a reliable, predictable way of building standardized plants that worked. Their task was hampered by a moving target of increasing government licensing and construction requirements, which made the last batch of nuclear plants to be built exceedingly uneconomical. Vast cost overruns and some utility bankruptcies led to a complete shutdown of construction of new nuclear plants by the mid-90s. Although there are now signs that the nuclear freeze is beginning to thaw, the deregulation of the electric-power industry in the last decade or so means that investors look even harder at the economics of nuclear power than they used to. And they should. Good engineering is always about economics at some level, and companies who hope to succeed in this business have to figure out how to make nuclear plants effective, safe, and profitable.

Politically, a hard core of opposition to nuclear power in any way, shape, or form developed and took over the conversation by the 1980s. This vociferous minority tends to attract much media attention, and has strongly colored the public perception of nuclear energy. The industry’s proponents are not nearly as concentrated, focused, or energetic, so the minority tends to get most of the attention. Engineers in favor of nuclear power have not always considered the fact that ignoring a public perception based on wrong information, will not make that public perception go away.

For example, suppose a person opposes the construction of a new nuclear plant ten miles away from his house because of fear that the radiation emitted from it in normal operation will shorten his lifetime. I’m not saying that’s the only reason people oppose nuclear power, but it is one reason some people cite. You can sit down with such a person and show them reams of statistics to the effect that if they smoke, or drive a car, or do any number of other things that people do routinely, their chances of dying from one of these other ordinary activities is vastly greater than the miniscule risk of getting cancer from the slight additional background of radiation from a nuclear plant—if indeed there is any added risk at all. But the perception is there, and too many engineers simply sweep aside such beliefs by saying they are irrational. But an irrational belief that someone holds will still affect their behavior, and their attitudes, and the way they vote.

There is one relatively new argument in favor of nuclear power: the fact that it is the most reliable and well-developed way to generate electricity without adding to the world’s carbon footprint. Whether or not you believe global warming is the worst crisis of our time, we can all agree that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (whether domestic coal or imported oil) is a good thing, other matters being equal. And nuclear power does that in spades. I suspect this is one of the main motivations behind the Obama administration’s embrace of limited nuclear energy, which to their credit they have been fairly consistent about.

A Federally sponsored design exercise is one thing. But until Federal, state, and local governments modify the currently cumbrous and Byzantine nuclear licensing and approval process, I suspect the present deregulated electric-power industry is going to be reluctant to put a lot of money into nuclear power, despite its environmental advantages. In France, sustained and intelligent government direction led to a global success story in nuclear energy. Let us hope that something similar might happen here, although the paths we take will look very different from what happened in France.

Sources: The New York Times online edition carried a report on the Obama administration’s proposal for modular nuclear plant design on Feb. 13, 2011 at I also consulted the Wikipedia article “Nuclear power in France” and obtained the statistic on the percentage of U. S. electricity generated by nuclear power from the U. S. Department of Energy website

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Freezing Texans In the Dark: Engineering Rolling Blackouts

Last Wednesday, thousands of Texans experienced something that, to the best of my knowledge, is unprecedented in the history of the state. A combination of extremely low temperatures, weather-caused generating plant failures, and poor planning led to the need to cut off electric power for several hours or more in widespread regions of Central and North Texas. My house was in one of the affected regions, and so about 5:20 AM that morning I found myself hunting in the dark for flashlights and wondering if someone had driven into a power utility pole nearby. We experienced more blackouts intermittently the rest of the morning, and my university cancelled afternoon classes out of concerns that people would get trapped in elevators. Later that day I learned the reason: a short-term shortage of generating capacity forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to order its member utilities to shed loads systematically in a series of rolling blackouts to prevent the whole system from going down in an uncontrolled way. There is both good news and bad news in the reports of why this happened and how decisions were made.

The good news is that the old “hold on till you can’t anymore” attitude that led in the 1960s to regional or national power blackouts is a thing of the past. With modern instrumentation and modeling software, operators can tell when their power grid is getting close to the brink and organize deliberate actions such as rolling blackouts to prevent a total system collapse. That is what operators in California had to do a few years ago during extremely hot weather and an energy crisis, and that is what ERCOT did last week. Relatively short local blackouts of a few “circuits” (distribution areas) at a time are much preferable to a disorganized collapse that affects everybody, including critical loads such as hospitals, rest homes, and semiconductor plants, for whom a power failure means endangering lives or the immediate loss of millions of dollars of product and equipment.

But the bad news is that we had rolling blackouts at all. Texas is unique among the 48 contiguous states in that its power grid is largely independent of surrounding regions. When other grids have trouble, this helps us get through unscathed, but by the same token, the state has to generate the vast majority of the power it uses within its own borders. Consequently there are some 500 or so generating plants in Texas, about 50 of which were off line last Wednesday for one reason or another. Reports are still coming in about why so many plants were down, but the most significant factor was the weather: it was 18 degrees F here in San Marcos, halfway between San Antonio and Austin, and proportionally colder as you went north. Evidently power-plant operators, whose machinery is mostly outdoors and exposed to the wind and icy temperatures, did not uniformly plan in advance for such low temperatures. Pipes froze or burst, machinery failed to start, and even many of the natural-gas-fired emergency plants designed for short-term supplemental use in just such a crisis couldn’t be started. The reason? Atmos Energy, the main natural-gas supplier, was having its own problems keeping gas pressure up to residential customers, so it exercised its contractual right to reduce pressure to large-scale industrial users, including—you guessed it—power plants. So we shot ourselves in the foot on that one.

ERCOT and its member utilities have since come in for a lot of criticism about the way the blackouts were distributed. It turns out that the firms had lists of “protected” loads which were not to be interrupted under rolling-blackout conditions: places like the aforementioned hospitals, nursing homes, and semiconductor plants. There were so many of these protected loads in so many circuits that the burden of the blackouts fell on a relatively few residential and commercial districts, with reports of some sections losing power for as long as eight hours.

What lessons can be learned from this experience? Surely a lot of power-plant owners are reviewing their cold-weather contingency plans, and the next time such an unusual cold snap hits I hope more plants will stay on line. Everybody now knows about the lists of protected loads, and after such public exposure perhaps a dialog about the wisdom of such lists can lead to improvements or changes if necessary. And clearly, just because something is in a contract doesn’t mean that it’s a wise thing to do. Cutting gas pressure to power plants in an emergency when you need more power plants, not less, is just the kind of bureaucratic messup that needs coordination at a higher level, perhaps with state government involvement if necessary.

But beyond these tactical issues lies a more strategic question: does this experience tell us something about changes in the level of commitment and planning in the electric-utility industry after several years of deregulation? Compared to thirty years ago, the industry is much more diversified, independent of government, and competitive, although these changes are only a matter of degree. The concern I have always had about extensive utility deregulation is that in the struggle for profits, the customer’s needs would be left behind. Under normal conditions this concern has largely proved groundless, and at least in many parts of Texas customers now have a choice about who they buy their electricity from. (That is not the case for people who live in cities that own the electric utility, such as San Marcos.) But the relationship between one customer and a particular electric provider proved illusory when ERCOT exercised what amounted to dictatorial control over the entire system to preserve its integrity.

On the whole, this control was exercised wisely. One wonders whether the problem would have occurred under the old regulated system of guaranteed profits, when generating, transmitting, and distributing equipment was typically under one ownership and profits were generous enough to allow overkill in maintenance and cold-weather protection, as well as a little surplus for extravagances like research, for instance. We will never know. I confess a little hurt pride at the thought that rolling blackouts, which I associate (rightly or wrongly) mainly with developing countries, actually affected my home state of Texas. I hope this is not a trend, and that the lessons learned from this unique experience help us avoid another one in the future.

Sources: I used reports from various issues of the Austin American-Statesman over the last week (see for specific reports on the rolling blackouts of Feb. 2, 2011).