Friday, July 26, 2013

The Medieval Wisdom of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”

Back in 2000, when the founders of Google were discussing ways to express their core philosophy, Paul Buchheit (employee No. 23) suggested “Don’t be evil.”  At the time, he was simply trying to contrast the way Google did business with the less salutary practices of some of their competitors.  Nobody dared to disagree with the principle of not being evil, so the phrase was adopted and down to today remains one of Google’s official core values.  Along the way it has acquired another phrase, so the complete statement is “Do the right thing; don’t be evil.”  In promulgating this notion, Google has (perhaps unwittingly) taken a stand on the side of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and countless other ancient sages against much of what today passes for acceptable moral principles.  It would surprise me, however, to discover that more than a few Google employees are aware of this.

Many of them, in fact, would probably subscribe to the notion that no one should impose one’s moral principles on another person.  Even Google doesn’t explicitly recommend their “do good, avoid evil” principle for everybody; the most they are saying is that Google employees will try to live up to it.  If you like doing evil, fine, just don’t go to work for Google.  But as physicist Anthony Rizzi points out in his book The Science Before Science, the advice to not impose one’s moral views on another, is itself a moral view. 

If I see an adult male in a shopping mall beating up a two-year-old, and I rush to intervene, and the man says, “Leave us alone, you’ve got no business imposing your morality on me,” I could respond with, “Sir, that itself is a moral principle which you are trying to impose on me.”  (What I would really do is call the cops, but that’s another matter.)  And in any event, as Rizzi points out, no one consistently acts as though all moral principles are simply matters of personal preference, even though they may give lip service to the idea in academic papers, for example.  If the chair of a philosophy department read a paper by one of his philosophers claiming that all morality is relative, and called the author up one day and said, “Because all morality is relative and I don’t like your looks, I’m reducing your pay by half,” I seriously doubt that the philosopher would calmly accept this as a logical consequence of his own philosophical position.  So even if some people say morality is relative, on matters that affect them personally they usually don’t act like they really believe it.

So where does that leave us?  It begins to look as though there really may be some objective moral principles “out there” so to speak, independent of whatever we say or think about them.  And behind them all, at the head of the logical chain of reasoning where first things must always be, stands the principle embraced by Google:  “Do the right thing; don’t be evil.”  You can’t derive that principle from anything else.  It is one of those self-evident statements that can’t come from another more basic notion.  As it stands, of course, it needs development before it can help you live your life.  But all other moral principles can be logically derived from what Rizzi calls “the first principle of ethics”:  do good and avoid evil.

Ah, but what is good and what is evil?  In a thousand-word column, I obviously can’t do justice to that question.  The short answer is, good is that which fulfills one’s purposes, and evil is the absence of such good.  One reason there is so much evil in the world is that, while every person does what seems good at a particular time and place, what seems good at the time may not really help one to fulfill one’s purposes.  It may seem good to an alcoholic to take one more drink, even if it’s the one that makes him so drunk he gets in his car and causes the death of another driver.  It’s not always easy to figure out what the true good is, which is one reason why ethics can get complicated—so complicated that the analytically-minded tend to throw up their hands and say it’s all hopeless. 

But it’s not hopeless.  Most people figure out what good to do, and what evil to avoid, with a good bit of success every day.  The lapses happen when our emotions or our hasty judgments lead us astray.  It requires just as much thought and attention, if not more, to be a good person as it does to be a good engineer.  But the technical and the ethical sides of engineering start from different foundations.

When Mr. Buchheit hit on “Don’t be evil” to guide what would become one of the greatest corporations of the twenty-first century, he was saying more than he knew.  Neither Google (through whose facilities this blog appears, by the way) nor any other firm can completely live up to their core principles, including that one.  But having it out there to shoot for is a start.  And in having that core principle to live up to, all the Googleites are following in the footsteps of medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who clearly saw that the first logical step in being good is to admit there are such things as universal moral principles, and that the one to start with is “do good and avoid evil.” 

Sources:  Anthony Rizzi is a practicing research physicist at the Institute for Advanced Physics at Baton Rouge, Louisiana ( and author of The Science Before Science:  A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century (IAP Press, 2004).  Of all books that I’ve read about scholastic philosophy (which is the term for the type of philosophy done in the High Middle Ages by St. Thomas Aquinas), Rizzi’s does the best job of defining terms and explaining concepts in ways that the average non-philosopher can understand.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Paul Buchheit and “Don’t be evil.” 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Open Spectrum: An Ethical Open Question

My personal dealings with the Federal Communications Commission have been limited to holding a commercial “radio operator” license that qualified me to be the night watchman at a small AM station for two weeks in high school, and holding an amateur radio license, which I put in jeopardy once by building a ham transmitter that splattered signals all over the 40-meter band and got me a “no-no” notice from an FCC monitoring station.  Although I am no longer an active ham, I still have the license, and so I was interested to see a proposal recently that seemed to threaten not only my license, but those of all ham radio operators in the U. S.

The proposal is for moving from the present FCC-mandated allocations of the radio spectrum to something called “open spectrum.”  Before I explain what open spectrum means, I should mention some basics about the radio spectrum and how it is allocated today.

Radio waves are characterized by their frequency.  For example, WRR in Dallas, Texas (one of the oldest stations west of the Mississippi) operates on a frequency of 101.1 MHz.  All the frequencies from less than 100 kHz (one hundred thousand) up to many GHz (billions) are usable for communications under some conditions, but you can’t just keep piling more and more signals onto the same frequencies.  Eventually, interference between signals gets so bad that the whole thing becomes unusable.  A problem like this arose in the 1920s when AM radio broadcasting got off the ground, and led eventually to the formation of the FCC, along with international organizations with similar purposes:  to regulate how each frequency was used. 

Currently, the FCC mandates in most cases exactly who can use what frequencies and how, and issues licenses to the authorized users, whether they be hams, radio stations, or wireless hubs that link computers and cellphones.  I said “in most cases”:  there are a few spectrum segments that are “license-free” and anyone can use these for anything as long as they follow a few general rules.  The FCC in recent years has also held a limited number of auctions, which is a baby step toward one form of open-spectrum idea.

You can think of the various open-spectrum proposals as themselves spread out along a spectrum.  At one end is the old-fashioned central-control approach that the FCC used prior to about 1985:  nobody does anything without being told exactly where and how to do it by the FCC.  At the other end is the (impractical) libertarian extreme of no regulations by anyone anywhere, and everybody just does the best they can.  No one seriously advocates that extreme either, because it would threaten with disabling  interference the investments of many billions of dollars by operators of cellphone systems, wireless and broadcast networks, and so on. 

The most viable-looking forms of open-spectrum plans propose something like the following, which was broached in a recent issue of National Review by Christopher DeMuth.  One day the FCC gets up in the morning and declares that everyone who currently holds a license henceforward owns property rights in that portion of the spectrum licensed to them.  The licensees can freely buy and sell their spectrum chunks and use them for anything they like, and the only role the FCC will play is like the land-records office of a county:  just keeping track of who owns what.  DeMuth says that this would free up a lot of spectrum that is currently misallocated under the old rules, such as the underutilized spectrum in the UHF TV bands.  These vast regions of largely empty MHz were originally allocated in the 1950s to make up for defects in the crude TV tuners of the day.  But today’s spread-spectrum and software-radio approaches could exploit these regions much more effectively, if there were only a way to get at them.  DeMuth claims that the form of open-spectrum policy he advocates would do this and more.

The ethical aspects of open-spectrum notions comes into play when you consider the radio spectrum as a limited public resource, similar to a national forest.  There is only so much of it available in a given geographic area, and if you trash it, you’ll have a lot of problems and it will affect everybody one way or another, including those who will not be able to afford their present spectrum allocations under the privatizing style of open-spectrum proposal.  The parties who I am concerned about in the free-market open-spectrum approach are non-profit individuals and organizations such as radio amateurs (whose licenses explicitly forbid them to do anything with their hobby for pay), scientists such as radio astronomers, non-profit agencies of various kinds, and other special cases such as emergency communications entities with limited budgets. 

A different open-spectrum proposal by Professor Eli Noam at Columbia University would take a less radical approach.  Instead of buying and selling, spectrum users would pay rent based on demand, and the rental fees would go to the government.  Under this proposal, the non-profit entities could receive protection from the vicissitudes of the market by having their licenses for free, courtesy of the FCC, much as the situation is now.  But most of the spectrum would be turned over to a market-based approach where the more valuable segments would be more costly to use.  This idea does most of what the private-ownership concept does, but leaves a slightly larger role for the government to do what I think is an appropriate thing:  to guard the rights of those who cannot defend themselves on an economic basis, but who nevertheless perform useful functions in society. 

At the risk of getting more complaints about mentioning politics, I will say that neither of these open-spectrum proposals seems to stand much of a chance of getting adopted under an administration which generally favors top-down approaches to regulation.  But I could be wrong, and if enough people of different political stripes get behind the open-spectrum concept, it could actually happen.  But I hope a form is adopted which would protect the rights and privileges of those who would no longer be able to afford to use the spectrum under the totally free-market approach. 

Sources:  Christopher DeMuth’s article “Open Skies and Open Spectrum” appeared in the July 15, 2013 issue of National Review, pp. 32-36.  Mr. DeMuth is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, which is also where Harold Furchgott-Roth works, the author of a paper which embodies the open-spectrum proposal Mr. DeMuth describes.  Eli Noam’s earlier open-spectrum paper “Taking the Next Step Beyond Spectrum Allocation:  Open Spectrum Access,” written in 1995, is available at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on open spectrum. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Quebec Rail Disaster: Nine Notorious Necessities

In the science of logic, a necessary condition for a thing to occur is a circumstance that will stop the thing from occurring if the circumstance is not present.  Having fuel in my car is a necessary condition for getting it to run.  No fuel, no go. 

In the study of industrial disasters, you often find that instead of a single cause, there are multiple interlocked causes, each one of which was a necessary condition for the accident to take place.  The longer the chain of necessary conditions, the less likely it is that all of them will happen in a way that leads to a problem.  This is one reason why such situations are hard to anticipate.  The disaster that struck the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on the night of July 5 and 6 is just such a tragedy.  While the full details have yet to be investigated, by going only a little beyond what is known I can assemble a chain of nine separate conditions, each of which had to prevail in order for the accident to happen. 

Lac-Mégantic is a community of about 5,000 on the tip of a lake of the same name, near the Canada-Maine border.  It was founded during the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railway in 1884, and a heavily-used rail line still runs directly through the center of town and extends westward up a rather steep grade to the next town of Nantes.  About 11 P. M. on the night of July 5, a five-locomotive eastbound train consisting of 73 tank cars filled with crude oil, besides other cargo, pulled into Nantes and stopped.  The engineer, Tom Harding, was done with his day’s run and planned to spend the night in a hotel in nearby Lac-Mégantic.  Before he left for the night, he followed what was apparently standard procedure in securing the train:  setting the handbrakes on all five locomotives and ten freight cars, and leaving one engine running to maintain pressure on the air brakes.

Railroad air brakes were an invention of George Westinghouse, who had the clever idea that a loss of brake pressure, such as would occur if part of a train broke away and lost its air connection to the engine’s compressor, should apply the brakes.  The same basic system is used today.  Each car has an air storage tank that provides the actual pressurized air that is applied to the brake cylinders on each “truck” or set of wheels.  The air from the tank is valved to the brakes when the main-line pressure falls, either gradually for controlled braking or suddenly, as when a train comes apart. 

But each tank holds only so much air, and so the other function of the air in the line is to maintain pressure in the tanks on each car. 

By setting the handbrakes, Harding was taking extra precautions.  In principle, as long as the engine was running to maintain air pressure, the air tanks would stay pressurized and the brakes would hold.  Satisfied that he had done his job, he made his way to Lac-Mégantic and to bed.

At 11:30 P. M., a concerned citizen reported to the Nantes fire department that the one running engine was on fire.  Local firemen reported to the scene and rousted out the nearest available rail employee, who turned out to be a track worker unfamiliar with the operation of locomotives.  The firemen and the railway employee managed to turn off the engine and put out the fire, but no one re-started the engine after the fire, and everyone left the scene by midnight.

For reasons that remain to be determined, about an hour later the train’s brakes ceased to hold, probably because the pressure in the air tanks dropped after the engine and its compressor were shut off.  The steep (1.2%) grade combined with the heavy load to send the train accelerating down the line six miles (10 km) along a straight track that executes a sharp bend in the center of Lac-Mégantic, near a strip of bars where late-night patrons were enjoying themselves.  Several people noticed the train rushing past at up to 66 MPH (100 km/hr).  When the leading locomotives hit the curve, they left the track and landed a few blocks away.  But the easily-punctured single-walled tank cars ruptured and caught fire, turning Lac-Mégantic into an inferno.  At the time of this writing (July 14), thirty-three bodies have been recovered, and seventeen more persons are missing and presumed dead. 

For this tragedy to occur as it did, you had to have

1.  A long heavy train full of
2.  Crude oil or other flammable material in
3.  Easily-ruptured tank cars attached to an
4.  Engine that caught fire and was turned off by
5.  A track worker who didn’t know how to start it again, and
6.  A steep grade under the train, and
7.  The engineer asleep in a hotel where nobody could find him, who
8.  Set enough handbrakes to keep the train from moving under normal circumstances, but not enough under the peculiar conditions that prevailed, and
9.  A town built around the closest turn in the tracks downhill from where the train started to roll.

If any of those nine conditions had been otherwise, the accident would not have happened, at least not to the extent that it did.  A shorter, lighter train might not have overcome the fading brakes.  Tanks of a non-flammable substance would have caused physical damage, but would not have burned.  Special double-walled tanks that are recommended for use in crude-oil service but not required, might not have ruptured as easily.  If the engine hadn’t caught fire, it would have kept the brakes going.  If the railroad employee had known how to start another engine, the brakes would have worked.  If the track had been flat instead of on a grade, the train might not have rolled away.  If the engineer had left a note saying where to call him in case of emergency, he might have restarted the engine.  If he had set more handbrakes, it might have prevented the runaway.  And if the bend in the tracks had been in a cornfield instead of in the center of town, no one might have died.

These “ifs” are cold comfort to those who have lost family and friends in the tragedy.  But they show what a long chain of unusual circumstances had to come about for the accident to happen.  Investigations may show that using more rupture-resistant tank cars would have reduced the chances of fire.  And there will certainly be questions raised about the advisability of crude-by-rail, or CBR, as a means of transporting large quantities of crude oil, instead of politically controversial pipelines, for example.  Let’s hope that what engineers, regulators, and the public learn from this accident will help in preventing the next one.

Sources:  I referred to articles on the accident in The Globe and Mail at and The Guardian at, a blog by Lloyd Alter at,
and a blog in Railway Age by Tony Kruglinski at, as well as the Wikipedia articles on Lac-Mégantic (the town) and the Lac-Mégantic derailment. 

Note added July 18:  Several comments indicate I did not adequately explain the operation of locomotive air brakes.  They are indeed essentially fail-safe in the short term, but not in the long term. 

An analogy can be made to the type of emergency lighting in stores and restaurants that is powered by storage batteries.  Under normal circumstances, the utility power charges the batteries and signals the emergency lights to remain off.  But when the utility power fails, the loss of voltage signals the emergency lights to turn on and operate from their storage batteries.  However, the storage batteries will eventually lose their charge if the power is not restored within a certain time.  When the storage batteries are depleted, the emergency lights will fail as well.

Here is the analogy.  The utility’s electric power is like the locomotive’s air compressor.  The emergency-light storage batteries are like the compressed-air tanks in each rail car.  The emergency lights coming on are like the brakes on each car becoming actuated by the air pressure from the tanks when the pressure from the locomotive fails (either deliberately or accidentally).  The tanks can supply only so much air (which escapes due to leaks, imperfect seals, etc.) and eventually the pressure falls to the point that the brakes no longer hold, just as the emergency lights will eventually go out. 

One reason the brakes are not actuated by a non-pneumatic method (e. g. springs) is that there are situations in which railway workers need cars to roll freely without being connected to a source of air pressure, as when the cars are sorted by being rolled one at a time over a “hump” and down a controlled grade through a sequence of switches.  If the brakes were always applied in the absence of air pressure, this kind of thing would not be possible. 

I hope this clarifies the question of how air brakes on trains work.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Global Warming, Solar Energy, and $300,000 Tortoises: The Morality of Energy Production

On Tuesday, June 25, in a speech before enthusiastic students at Georgetown University, President Obama delivered a message outlining his vision for what the United States ought to do, and what he personally is going to do, about the moral issue of energy production.  Now at first glance, you would think that energy production is a technical issue that should be left to engineers and economists.  But it was clear from the President’s speech that he thinks it is also a moral issue, as moral as which side you should fight on in a war.  His speech, in fact, was peppered with militant terminology.  He spoke of having the “courage to act,” he talked of the “fight against climate change,”  and expressed his desire for America to “win the race for clean energy.”  Toward the end, he called for citizens “who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”  To that end, he announced that he was going to ask the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue regulations that, according to Obama critic Charles Krauthammer, will “make it impossible to open any new coal plant and will systematically shut down existing plants.”

If the construction of new coal-fired power plants is going to come to an end, maybe we can start building more Ivanpahs instead.  Ivanpah is a Piute term meaning “good water,” and is the name of a giant solar-energy project not too far from where Interstate 15 crosses the California-Nevada line on its way to Las Vegas.  Built by a consortium of construction and solar-energy firms, plus money from Google investors, Ivanpah consists of three circular arrays of tracking mirrors that direct sunlight onto four-hundred-foot tall “power towers.”  Atop each power tower is a cubical black boiler to make steam that turns turbines that drive generators to make electricity.  This is the kind of thing that President Obama sees as the future of energy production:  it is solar-based, it adds nothing in operation to the nation’s carbon footprint, and it is even respectful of the rights of the 150 or so desert tortoises on the construction site who were carefully inventoried and transported to an equally suitable habitat at a cost of about $50 million—or roughly $300,000 per tortoise. 

The engineer in me applauds the Ivanpah project.  It is an elegant yet simple solution to several of the problems that plague direct photoelectric energy production using solar cells, one of which is the fact that all days are not equally sunny.  When clouds show up, energy production from solar cells drops instantly, and this is not the sort of behavior that power grids like. 

The Ivanpah plant mitigates the cloud problem in a couple of ways.  First of all, unless there’s a solid cloud cover (not too common in the desert), smaller cloud shadows won’t put the five square miles of mirrors out of commission all at once.  And even if insolation, as it’s called, varies over a time period of minutes or even hours, the thermal inertia of the large power-tower boilers means that the plant will still be producing energy even when it is temporarily in the shade due to clouds.  So without any extra effort, the Ivanpah project has sidestepped one of the significant technical obstacles faced by solar-cell arrays.

Still, Ivanpah is expensive.  According to Wikipedia, the whole project, now nearing completion, will cost about $2 billion when finished.  This is roughly four times what a new coal-fired plant of equivalent peak output would cost.  And the coal plant will run any time you want it to.  True, you have to buy coal over the life of the plant, but this can be factored into the cost, and the economics of that calculation tells you why so much of our electric energy is still supplied by coal.

If we stopped building new fossil-fuel power plants tomorrow and allowed only nuclear, solar, and other renewable forms of new plant construction henceforth, several things would happen.  Electricity would become gradually more expensive and possibly less reliable than it would be otherwise.  And America’s contribution to the world’s output of carbon in the atmosphere, which has already fallen to 1992 levels, would fall faster and be overwhelmed by the soaring use of coal and other fossil fuels by China, India, and the rest of the world.  The overall objective effect on global warming would be minimal.

Everyone has a moral compass that helps prioritize ethical decisions.  For most people, murder is a more significant moral issue than jaywalking.  President Obama views the threat of global warming as a moral equivalent of war, to judge by his Georgetown speech.  He clearly wishes to unite the country around a common set of sacrifices that will allow us to hold our heads up before our grandchildren, whose world we should literally save from destruction by the evil forces of climate change.

I will merely point out, as Krauthammer has, that climate change comes in dead last in a poll of 21 matters of concern to Americans.  Jobs and the economy are things that the average U. S. citizen is far more concerned about, but the President’s moral compass seems to be insensitive to such concerns.  Or perhaps, as a practical politician, he realizes that in his lame-duck term he should spend his limited time on matters where he can act unilaterally, as with his instructions to the EPA, and not waste his energy on proposals he will not be able to get through Congress.  Leadership is a mysterious thing, and some leaders who have received the laurels of historical honor were excoriated and criticized at the time.  The President obviously feels he is in this category, and often refers to his unpopular proposals as being on the “right side of history.” 

But there sometimes is not much difference between being ahead of the pack and simply being out in left field.  If there was a truly united sense among Americans that the nation was under an existential threat and climate change was the culprit, President Obama’s rhetoric would fit the national mood and history might go his way.  But I fear what we are witnessing is instead the desperate actions of a leader who wants to force his vision of the future on a public that is unwilling to pay the high price for a dubious honor that may not come for generations, if ever.   

Sources:  I learned about Ivanpah from the print edition of the June 24, 2013 issue of Time Magazine.  I used information from the project website, President Obama’s speech of June 25 as transcribed by the Wall Street Journal at, Charles Krauthammer’s column for July 6, 2013 as presented in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at, and the Wikipedia articles on “Ivanpah Solar Power Facility” and “Fossil fuel power station.”