Monday, August 27, 2012

Copyright or Copy Wrong?

Over a hundred years ago, when newspapers existed exclusively on paper and the fastest way news traveled was by tapping telegraph keys and not computer keys, newspaper editors established a practice called the “exchange.”  As I understand it, Newspaper A would send copies of its back issues to Newspapers B, C, and D, and they would exchange copies of theirs with A and with each other.  Items that were of more than local interest but not time-sensitive would be picked up by other papers and printed with the credit given to “(Exchange).”  Such items could include what we would now call “feature” stories, human-interest reports, and even poetry.

Why this bit of historical newspaper arcana?  Because you need to know it to understand the following poem, which I transcribe from memory:

I shot a poem into the air
It was reprinted everywhere
From Bangor to the Rocky Range,
And always credited to (Exchange).

In other words, once the woebegone poet got his poem into one paper, editors at other papers saw it in the exchanges and liked it so much that they printed it too, but somehow or other his name got left off in the process.   If poetry is the clear expression of mixed emotions, this poet had plenty of raw material to go on:  pleasure at the thought that lots of papers reprinted his poem, but regret that nobody but the local readers of the first paper to print it knew who the author was.

Technology has not eliminated this kind of thing, but it happens a lot faster now.  In fact, just since last week, it has happened to me twice, although I didn’t have the misfortune to see my work appear without my byline.  Here’s what happened.

Some people at a commercial website, which will remain nameless herein, but which caters to a technical and engineering readership, apparently read ny blog post last week about the submarine theater flipping over.  I’m not too surprised that such folks glance at my blog.  Google statistics tell me there are about fifty or so people who get it regularly, and many more occasional visitors.  Anyway, when they read last week’s post, they thought it was good enough to run in not just one, but two websites they operate.  So all of a sudden I appeared in their pages as an “editorial” writer, complete with photo and bio attached to the blog post.  But there was no mention of the fact that it was actually reprinted from another source.  The impression their readers came away with was that I had written it exclusively for them.

They must have a lot larger readership than this blog does, because I later got an email from Bob Phillips, the producer of the Aquarena Springs documentary from which I took the submarine-theater story.  Now, to be fair, I didn’t tell him that I was blogging about it, though I did write him a fan letter.  He not only thanked me for the letter, but said that he’d gotten 124 hits from the commercial website that had carried my post, and sold three videos as a result.

My presence on someone else’s website was news to me, and I promptly went over to the site and sure enough, there was my “editorial.”  A few days later the head of the publicity department at Texas State University emailed me to say he’d enjoyed the story too, which is how I found out about the second place they’d posted it.

Like the poet, I came away from this episode with mixed feelings.  I was flattered that the outfit thought enough of the story to post it on two of their websites.  But I was a little annoyed at their failing to mention my blog’s URL, and to give the impression I’d written the piece for their website.

This same sort of thing went on before digital technology made it so easy to cut and paste whole articles in less than a minute.  I have a curious old book with the title “Henley’s Twentieth Century Formulas, Processes, and Trade Secrets,” which is an encyclopedia of how to make everything from adhesives to yeast.  It credits almost no sources at all.  Internal evidence indicates it was culled from numerous old encyclopedias, trade journals, and European publications too old or far away to be likely to sue for copyright infringement.  But it took years to put that sort of thing together, and nowadays you can do it practically overnight.

So has digital technology made copyright infringement and its less serious but ethically questionable allied practices easier?  Certainly it’s easier and faster to electronically cut and paste an article today than it was in the old days, when you had to retype it by hand (two or three times in the old Linotype days), set it up, print it, ship it, and read it to do the whole thing over again.  But the ethics of the thing haven’t changed, as far as I’m concerned.

How was what I did with Bob Phillips’s video different from what the nameless website did with my article?  I did not present his video in its full and original form and leave you with the impression that he had made it solely so that I could show it on my website.  Instead, I added my own views, research, and recollections to material from his video and came up with an original work of my own.  And I stated my sources in the “Sources” section of the blog.  Far from being annoyed at what I did, Mr. Phillips was delighted, not least because the additional advertising brought him more business.  But the nameless website passed off my article as though I had written it for them and didn’t mind appearing in their pages to help them make money.

My intention is to maintain this blog as a strenuously non-commercial enterprise, and I plan to keep it that way.  Because I have another job that pays the bills, I wish to keep this blog free from even the hint of a conflict of interest by accepting no sponsorships or advertising of any kind.  You see no ads here, I invite no guest bloggers to advertise their wares, and the only reason Mr. Phillips’s video sales website got mentioned was because its URL is the only way I could refer to it in a way that is publicly accessible.  When the commercial website passed off my blog as their “editorial,” they gave the impression that I was working for them, which is assuredly not the case.  Which is why I was somewhat annoyed as well as pleased.

As for that poet, I hope I do not get into trouble with the literary heirs and assigns of Franklin P. Adams, a popular humor columnist of the 1930s.  He was the guy who wrote the poem.  Considering the subject of this column, it would hardly be fair to Mr. Adams to leave his name out.

Sources:  Although I won’t give their URLs here, you can find the websites where my post was reproduced by typing in last week’s headline to Google.  By now, the piece has even made its way to the Theater Safety Blog on  And Franklin P. Adams’ poem “Frequently” appears in An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor edited by Bennett Cerf (Doubleday, 1954), which in turn reprinted it from his anthology The Melancholy Lute (Viking, 1936).  There now.

An Apology (added Aug. 28):  After I posted the above blog, I received an email from a staff member at, the "nameless" site I referred to.  He said I had given him permission to copy my blog over a year ago, and otherwise he wouldn't have posted it without permission, which is what I thought had happened.  I had completely forgotten about this exchange, so I extend my apologies for raking over the coals undeservedly.  They have agreed to list my blog URL in any future posts, and so I consider this commitment sufficient amends for something I told them they could do in the first place.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Day The Submarine Theater Flipped Over

This is a story that, as far as I know, has never appeared in print before.  It’s not exactly hot news—the incident happened in 1970—but it exemplifies Henry Petroski’s dictum that engineers often learn more from failure than success.

One of the big tourist attractions of Texas in the 1960s was Aquarena Springs, an early water park at the headwaters of the San Marcos River in San Marcos, Texas, where I now live.  The park boasted what it called the world’s only submarine theater, a steel-and-glass box with rows of seating inside that you entered via a stairway in the rear.  Once the audience was seated, the entire system was lowered on cables and you watched the level of the crystal-clear spring water slowly rise along the glass picture windows.  When the window was pretty much entirely underwater, the show began.

First came Ralph the Swimming Pig, encouraged to jump into the water by an Aquamaid holding a baby bottle of milk.  Then the Aquamaids themselves put on an underwater show:  not just artistic underwater ballets and blowing huge bubble rings, but unique achievements such as drinking from soda bottles and dining at an underwater picnic table.  Hundreds of thousands of people attended the park each year, and up till 1970 the submarine functioned flawlessly.

Then on May 15 and 16 of that year, heavy rains struck San Marcos and areas to the northwest in its watershed.  Six to eight inches of rain in a day or less produced six-foot-high walls of water that tumbled down normally dry streambeds into town.  An apartment building on the banks of the San Marcos River just down from Aquarena Springs was flooded up to its second story, and the entire Aquarena complex next to the springs was many feet underwater.  Thirty alligators kept in a pen in the park escaped, but that’s another story, although the fact that the park used glass-bottom boats to give tours of the spring may have given rise to the phrase “up to your glass in alligators.”

At any rate, while the submarine theater didn’t flood, the abnormally high water level put a severe upward strain on the lift mechanism, which was designed to support its weight by opposing the downward force of gravity.  Once the floodwaters receded and everything dried out enough to resume operations, the park management asked engineers to come and inspect the lift mechanism for damage.  They said everything looked fine, so the next day tourists were admitted and the show was under way again.

The following information is from a documentary interview with a former Aquamaid who was an eyewitness.  When the first batch of tourists climbed into the theater and the lift mechanism started to lower it into the water, it became evident that the strain of the flood had evidently caused some hidden damage.  Beams restraining the theater gave way, and the thing became a free-floating object for the first time in its career.  With the load of tourists on board, its center of gravity was too high, and the whole theater flipped forward ninety degrees, so that the windows in the front now gave the surprised and shaken-up tourists a view of the bottom.  And of course everybody fell out of their seats.

Fortunately, the open hatchway was still above water in the theater’s new configuration.  Ladders and boats were called for, an escape plan was hastily arranged, and all the tourists inside, at least eleven people, were rescued without injury.  According to the eyewitness, the incident never appeared in the news media, no one complained, no lawsuits were filed, and after repairs the submarine theater resumed normal operations.

However, the park management decided this was a good opportunity to build an even larger theater, which they did.  The new structure was intentionally shaped in the form of three straight sections forming a banana-like curve, which would float upright even if cast free from its moorings in another flood.  It was this theater that I had the privilege of observing this fall when, after many delays, Texas State University (which purchased the park in the 1990s after it ceased profitable operation) finally began reconstruction of the Springs as a nature area.  It took one of the largest cranes in the Southwest to lift the thing out of the water, and if anyone is in the market for a used submarine theater, still good for many performances, I’m sure the University would welcome your inquiry.

This story brings to mind several lessons in engineering ethics.  First of all, the people who design a structure aren’t necessarily the best ones to tell whether subtle damage has occurred to it following an unusual circumstance, such as the flood putting upward strain on a system designed to resist downward tension.  Clearly, the engineers who gave the okay to start using the system after the flood missed something, though it might have been pretty hard to detect exactly what the damage was.

Next, we live in a very different culture than the one that prevailed in 1970.  It is hard to imagine such an incident happening without any news reports emerging about it today.  Kids caught in such a situation would be sending live videos with their iPhones to their friends within seconds, although the solid-steel environment of the submarine theater might have made it difficult to get reception.  In any case, the secret would have been out almost as soon as it happened, and the place would have been as full of news photographers and media helicopters as it was in fact during the final lifting of the theater by the giant crane this spring.  Only back then, the Aquarena Springs management would have been faced with damage control, not to the tourists (no one was hurt, fortunately) but to the park’s reputation.

And finally, the better design of the later, larger theater was directly attributable to the memorable near-disaster that the first one was involved in.  Sometimes, despite every effort designers make to anticipate things that could go wrong, they just miss some tricks that Nature manages to come up with.  So there really is no substitute for experience and experimental trials in some fields.

Aquarena Springs, the theme park, is history now, but it’s nice to know that its biggest engineering failure led not to death or destruction, but simply some good stories a few tourists got to tell when they got back home, and an improved design for the final decade or two of the park’s existence.
And by the way, they did catch those alligators, but they had to hire a professional alligator-wrestler from Florida to do it.

Sources:  Bob Phillips, son of a long-time manager at Aquarena Springs, has produced a 2011 documentary film, “Aquarena Springs and Ralph the Swimming Pig,” available at  I used material on the 1970 San Marcos flood from Jonathan Burnett, Flash Floods in Texas (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2008).   My wife and I took our honeymoon at Aquarena Springs in 1978, surviving a successful submarine theater performance.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Questioning “Question Authority”

Engineers work in an authority structure that coordinates their individual efforts with the larger purposes of a corporation, a government, or an entire industry.  Authority is one of those taken-for-granted concepts that we don’t often give much thought to.  There are those who view all authority with suspicion, and for some reason they seem especially widespread in New England, where “Question Authority” bumper stickers are almost as common as license plates; at least they were when I lived there in the 1990s.  The question I’d like to ask today is, can you be a good engineer and question authority too?   That is, is it consistent to be simultaneously an ethical engineer, and to maintain a fundamentally skeptical and judgmental attitude toward all authorities?

For help, I will turn to Victor Lee Austin, whose book Up With Authority is the best explication of the many ramifications of the idea of authority that I have ever seen.  Although Austin is himself a theologian, he draws support from philosophers such as Yves R. Simon and Michael Polanyi, and the point he makes that bears on our question is one that believers and non-believers alike can understand.

Austin says early in his book that authority has a dual aspect.  Normally we think of a person in authority as having power to decide important matters.  This is the facet of authority that first comes to mind when I think about authority with respect to engineering.  In an architectural firm, for example, only certain licensed architects and engineers are authorized to sign off on blueprints (or whatever the electronic equivalent is these days).  But using the word “authorized” in that way brings up a second aspect of authority.

Authorities don’t just get up one day and declare themselves authorities.  They have to be authorized.  In the case of licensed engineers, the state board in charge of licensing engineers authorizes the engineer to sign off on designs.  So authorities must receive their authority from, well, other authorities.  And authorities, as Austin points out, are ultimately other persons.   Even when we cite a licensing board or a book as an authority, we really refer to the person or people behind these intermediate entities.  So you can’t have authority without speaking of authorities, that is, persons who have authority.

That raises the structural question of where authority ultimately comes from.  I mean, if A is authorized by B and B is authorized by C through F, can we ever trace the lines of authority to their final source?  Where does the buck stop, in other words?

Austin, being a theologian, spills these particular beans early in the book.  The ultimate authority, he says, is God.  But God, being a “clean different kind of a thing” from anything or anyone else, is not simply another link in the chain of authority.  The clearest way God exerts authority is through his people, that is, believers, although he has many other ways of doing so.  But if you don’t believe in God, where does that leave you with respect to authority?

If you believe that human beings are the highest form of sentient life, then human beings must also be the ultimate source of authority.  And this hypothesis, if you want to call it that, appears to cover a lot of ground, at least if you don’t look too deeply.  For the nonbeliever as well as the believer, authority forms a complex web of interrelated authorizations and mutual consents.  Take an engineering licensing board as an example.  The people on the board are (or should be) licensed engineers themselves, whose licensing authority comes from a state government, but government itself acknowledges their authority by recognizing them as technically qualified to authorize other engineers.  And most of what Austin says about the various kinds of authority—social, epistemic (having to do with knowledge), and political—is supported by philosophical arguments that nonbelievers can at least understand, if not necessarily agree to.

So if authority is a necessary thing that engineering cannot function without, what about questioning authority?  Austin covers this in a discussion of disputed authority.  Human authorities make mistakes, and that means unquestioning obedience to all authority is an overly simplistic way to live.  But he points out that attitude is everything in a situation where you believe an authority above you is in error.

On the one hand, you can allow yourself to rebel against the authority and all its works.  You may let yourself have thoughts like,  “Well, if that’s what he’s going to do, I hope the whole project goes to smash.”  With an attitude like this, you are one with the “Question Authority” bumper stickers and in fundamental revolt against the entire organization.  If this is your attitude, quitting your job would be more honorable than staying and undermining the enterprise from within.

The attitude Austin encourages in situations where authority must be questioned is one that philosopher Michael Polanyi exemplified before he left science to pursue philosophy.  Polanyi made a fundamental but unexpected discovery about an aspect of surface chemistry, but it took him upwards of twenty years of persistent research and accepting the repeated rejection of his papers before he managed to convince the scientific community of the truth of what he had found.  Even as the peer-review process turned against him, he respected the basic authority structure it represented and worked within its constraints to make the truth known.

This attitude toward authority, of respectful disagreement while preserving the basic structure, goes a long way toward summarizing a lot of engineering-ethics thought.  A whole book could be written about engineering ethics and authority, and while I’m not going to write it, it would be a good book to read.

So what’s the answer to our question?  Normal engineering requires one both to be an authority and to be under authority.  Anyone who arrogates authority to himself or herself without respecting superior authorities will not last long in engineering (or most other fields, either).  But now and then, you may find that your authorities, whoever they are, have made an error, ranging from a mistake in a textbook to an order to falsify test records for an engineering project.  It will then be your role to deal respectfully but truthfully with the error in a way that preserves the overall authority structure, but moves the organization toward the freedom for human flourishing that Austin recognizes as the ultimate purpose of all authority. 

Sources: Victor Lee Austin’s book Up With Authority:  Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (New York:  T&T Clark International, 2010) was brought to my attention by an interview with the author on the Mars Hill Audio Journal (

Monday, August 06, 2012

Curiosity Kills the Skeptics—So Far

As you know by now if you have the slightest interest in the U. S. space program—and maybe even if you don’t—the unmanned Mars exploration craft called Curiosity landed successfully last night, a little after midnight Central Daylight Time.  This represents both a triumph for those who have advocated unmanned automated space exploration as the way to go, and the advent of a new NASA that is willing to relax and do a little showbiz of its own.

The Curiosity program is not without its critics.  Originally planned to cost $1.6 billion, which as major space probes go is not cheap but orders of magnitude less than manned flight, the launch date was delayed by two years because of technical problems and the final cost so far is $2.5 billion.  And as with any novel space venture, there was always a significant chance that the whole thing would turn into useless space junk.

But there’s a lot of grateful engineers at NASA this morning.  The elaborate sequence of rocket deceleration, ablation of a heat shield as the craft entered the thin Martian atmosphere, deployment of a parachute, and ignition of “hover” rockets to suspend the main body of the craft a hundred feet or so above the surface while the Curiosity vehicle itself was lowered on a cable, all worked apparently without flaw.  Cheers greeted the first grainy black-and-white image that the craft sent from the Martian surface.

Payoff will be a while in coming.  For the first month or so, engineers will just be checking out all the systems before issuing orders to drive anywhere.  But there are some very sophisticated instruments on board, including lasers to vaporize rock samples, a kind of low-power microscope, and a Russian neutron-based instrument that can search for hydrogen up to three meters deep in the soil.  The main goal of the whole project is to search for signs of present (or former) life on the planet.

I am not in the habit of making prognostications, but as various space probes have shown that interplanetary space is a more permeable region than we formerly believed, it would not surprise me to learn that Curiosity eventually finds some pretty uncontrovertible evidence of organically-produced stuff up there.  This would raise a lot more questions than it answers, of course, ranging from which came first, life on Mars or life on Earth? to whether life just naturally shows up under the right conditions, or whether it is a special and perhaps unique feature of Earth.  But we will just have to wait a few months to see about that.

This blog has carried more than its share of criticisms of NASA, but criticizing NASA is like saying “Texas is hot”—it’s not just one organization in one building.  Some parts of NASA are indeed dysfunctional, but the division responsible for the Curiosity mission has so far demonstrated their competence in the best possible way:  by succeeding in an ambitious and potentially fruitful scientific mission.

And perhaps because of the younger mix of engineers in this team, the way they have chosen to present the project to the public has a very different feel than what I am used to from NASA.  The old style is represented well in the film Apollo 13, where scenes of the NASA control room were filled with pudgy white-shirted chain-smoking engineers in ties, all male.  Official pronouncements and publicity were couched in stuffy NASA-speak that required interpretation to be understood by ordinary human beings.

But the material coming from the Curiosity team is very different. In a photo of the Curiosity control room just after the landing that accompanied the New York Times announcement, the predominant color was blue—evidently a kind of blue tee-shirt was the uniform of the day.  But there are no ties and no smoking visible, and at least a few women with responsibilities equal to those of the men are shown hugging the men.  It’s quite a contrast to the old days, and also shows up in the official Curiosity website, which seems to be aimed at about thirteen-year-olds.  Curiosity itself is quoted as talking about its mission:  “What’s My Mission?” is one menu item—and it has sent Twitter feeds such as “FYI, I aim to send bigger, color pictures from Mars later this week once I've got my head up & Mastcam active #MSL.”  (The overall project is known by its full name, the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL for short, while the lander itself is called Curiosity.)  As if that wasn’t unbent enough, NASA reportedly issued a short documentary using simulated scenes of the landing, but emphasizing the risky nature of the process and using Hollywood-style effects for maximum dramatic impact.

Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.  Following a series of failures in the first decade of the 21st century, NASA’s public image got pretty tarnished, but at least for the unmanned missions such as the MSL, it looks like their confidence has returned.  We will always have people around who say things like “For that $2.5 billion we could have fed X million starving people.”  This is always true, but I think the real reason for the MSL is encapsulated nicely in the name of the rover:  Curiosity.  This project represents a fairly unusual resurgence in public life these days of science for its own sake, unbuttressed by wire-drawn arguments that the work will really lead to practical applications such as better toasters, or some such thing.  Modern science since the days of Sir Francis Bacon has always been in tension between pure abstract curiosity on the one hand, and commercially profitable applications on the other hand.  There never was a time when the two poles were not present, but the practical pole has dominated to a greater extent than historically has been the case in the last few decades.  Perhaps Curiosity will inspire through its kid-friendly publicity a new generation of scientists who want to do science, not because it will make them more bucks, but simply because they want to know.

Sources:  The New York Times report on the landing of Curiosity appeared at  I also used material from the NASA website’s fact sheet at