Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Pecans, Profits, and Piety

Broadly speaking, the system of international trade we live under is a kind of technology.  It’s certain that without modern engineered means of transportation and communications, international markets would be much less significant than they are today.  And while the particular story I’m going to relate pertains to the oldest technology in human history, namely farming, the lesson behind it applies to many fields of engineering.

The pecan tree is the state tree of Texas.  (In case you’ve never heard a Texan say it, it’s pronounced “puh-cawn”).  Pecan trees can grow to a height of 100 feet (30 meters) or more, live up to 1000 years, and for most of those years can produce an abundant annual crop of tasty, highly edible nuts.  When my late grandfather moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, he planted a pecan tree in his back yard.  The last time I visited his house (currently occupied by other relatives), that tree was still going strong, providing shade for most of the back yard and a good bit of the house too.  Pecan trees are native to Texas and grace thousands of acres of river banks and bottom lands, besides furnishing an important food crop to pecan growers who grow hundreds of different varieties.  Pecans are sold both for direct consumption, either in the shell or hulled, and also as ingredients for processed food that benefit from the addition of chopped or blended pecans.  But until about a decade ago, the pecan market was almost entirely domestic, with a good number being sold mainly in Texas.

Then someone in China caught on to the fact that the huge market there for snack nuts, sold often in vending machines in locations such as gas stations and convenience stores, might benefit from imported pecans.  Up until then, most of the snack nuts sold were Chinese walnuts, but the cheaper pecan tastes just as good (in my opinion, anyway), and some clever Chinese importers introduced the new nut to Chinese consumers around 2001.

They liked it—liked it so much that since 2007, shipments of pecans to China from the U. S. (which includes exports from relatively new pecan-growing states such as Georgia and New Mexico as well as Texas) averaged almost 60 million pounds annually.  But there is a fly in this profitable ointment, which is the fact that the Chinese market wants a particular kind of “improved” pecan, not the rich variety of our native pecans.

According to an article in Texas Monthly by James McWilliams, the hybrid improved pecans have a uniform size, uniformly thin shells, and uniform quality.  These improved varieties will work in the Chinese vending machines, which can’t handle the variation in shapes and sizes of native varieties.  Texas pecan growers have known about the Chinese market for years, but so far they have exhibited a marked reluctance to chop down their existing groves, many of which are native varieties, to plant the improved type that produces machine-vendable pecans.   In so doing, they are losing year by year a potential market that could allow Texas to surpass the newer pecan-growing states and once more lead the nation in pecan exports.

That takes care of pecans and profits; now for the piety.  I have been reading a book called Food & Faith, a work of theological musings about the connections between eating and Christianity.  The author, Norman Wirzba, relies on the works of agrarians such as Wendell Berry as well as more explicitly theological writers.  But I was struck by the following passage from the book as expressing exactly what is going on between the Chinese pecan market and Texas pecan growers:  “Food that may have begun in the ground [or on a tree] must lose all traces of soil, sunlight, and fragile plant and animal life so that it can be redesigned, engineered [!], improved, packaged, stored, and delivered in whatever ways the food producer sees fit.”  Wirzba’s book, among many other things, is an impassioned plea to stop thinking about food and eating merely in material and economic terms. 

Viewed one way, it only makes sense for Texas pecan farmers to replant their groves with machine-friendly pecan trees, for the more efficient production of pecans that will contribute to the efficient international trade that efficiently fills vending machines with pecans that Chinese consumers can eat to fuel the machines called their bodies. 

But viewed another way, there is incalculable value in tending native pecan trees which are so deeply connected at multiple levels to a part of the world that Texans, at least, view as God’s country.  Not that His title to the rest of the world is defective in any serious way.  But as a recent arrival here from California said to me the other day, “Texans seem to have a loyalty to their state that I haven’t noticed anywhere else.”  And native pecan trees are part of what makes Texas the place it is.  I find reassuring the fact that just down the road from where I live, in Seguin, you can visit Pape’s Pecan Nutcracker Museum, and view both stationary and portable World’s Largest Pecans.  One is a concrete model on a pedestal on the town square, and the other, welded out of steel, is mounted on a trailer for convenient towing in parades.  And I would like to think that at least part of the reason that Texas pecan growers haven’t done the economically sensible and efficient thing of whacking down all their old-fashioned native trees to plant new ones for the Chinese market, is that, well, there’s more important things than money. 

It takes ten years for a new pecan sapling to mature enough to start producing.  That induces a natural tendency in pecan farmers to take the long view.  Ten years from now, the Chinese may have dropped pecans for Brazil nuts, for all I know.  But the rich biological and cultural heritage represented by the native pecan trees of Texas will live on, I hope, for many generations to come.

Sources:  I learned about the Chinese pecan market from James McWilliams’ article “Shell Game” in the Sept. 2013 edition of Texas Monthly.  It is an excerpt from his book The Pecan:  A History of America’s Native Nut to be published in October 2013.  I also referred to an online article about the pecan market posted by Nature’s Finest Foods Ltd. (a brokerage firm) at and an item by the Whitney Consulting Group posted on Google Docs (account required) at  Norman Wirzba’s Food & Faith:  A Theology of Eating was published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Guarding U. S. Nuclear Facilities: The ABCs of DBTs

Earlier this summer, I blogged about a small but determined team of anti-nuclear protesters, including a nun, who managed to get uncomfortably close to a supposedly secure stockpile of nuclear material maintained by the U. S. Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Fortunately, the most damage they caused was spray-painting some slogans on a wall, but if they had been terrorists determined to steal enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, the story might have ended differently. 

A recent report by a group of researchers at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin points out what they consider to be serious flaws in the way we currently establish levels of security for the various nuclear facilities in the U. S., which range from small research reactors and commercial nuclear power reactors up to full-scale armed nuclear weapons.  According to their report, the present method of deciding how much security is enough is based on something called the Design Basis Threat (DBT).  While the basic idea seems sound, the devil, as always, is in the details.

In order to protect something, you have to know (or guess) what you’re protecting it against.  The way the Design Basis Threat approach works is as follows.  Say you run a small research-type nuclear reactor, the kind operated by many universities, including for example the University of Texas at Austin.  You go to the appropriate agency, in this case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and ask what the appropriate Design Basis Threat is for your facility.  It turns out that “research reactors generally do not have to protect against radiological sabotage or provide an armed response to an attack.”  The Design Basis Threat is presumably an attack so feeble that the usual class of security guards found on college campuses would be able to handle it.  So you just go with the minimal kind of security you will typically find at a high-dollar lab of any kind in a public university, and you’re set.

On the other hand, if you run a large commercial power reactor near, say, New York City, such as the Indian Point plant on the Hudson, you are told that your Design Basis Threat includes “multiple groups attacking from multiple entry points; willing to kill or be killed; possessing knowledge about target selection; aided by active and/or passive insiders; employing a broad range of weapons and equipment, including ground and water vehicles.”  This typically means you have to maintain a dozen or so military-style armed guards at all times who are ready to fight off an attack by people who intend either to steal fissionable material or to blow up the place and spread the hot stuff around.  However, no commercial nuclear facility is required to be secure against an attack from the air. 

The requirements for safeguarding nuclear weapons, generally held only by the U. S. military, are even more stringent, as you might imagine. 

Anyone familiar with risks and accident histories knows that for every major disaster in a reasonably complex system, there are usually several less damaging minor incidents that can be called near misses or close calls.  The May 27 intrusion at Oak Ridge is just such a near miss, and to my mind seems to indicate that there may be cracks in the armor with which we protect our nuclear assets.  And some of these cracks may be due to the uneven way the Design Basis Threats are assigned, depending on the size and nature of the nuclear facility

The main criticism that the UT Austin researchers mount agains the current DBT regime is that while the larger facilities may be more likely to attract certain types of attacks, the nuclear material in the smaller facilities could be just as dangerous if stolen.  And the very fact that research reactors are not heavily guarded like commercial nuclear power plants are, makes the smaller operations more attractive to a potential terrorist, not less, if all they are trying to do is obtain a fissionable amount of material.  The UT Austin researchers point out that there are several examples of regulatory agencies backing down on the level of the assumed DBT because of industry’s protests that the resulting required protective measures would be too expensive.

This is one of these matters that may never be resolved unless we wake up some morning to the news that a major attack on a nuclear facility has succeeded.  And I hope that never happens.  But I can’t help but agree at least with the report’s claim that some of the ways that DBTs are currently established are lacking in logic.  For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated that current nuclear plants have enough strength in their existing containment vessels to withstand aircraft attack without any further enhancements.  But on the other hand, it has made a rule for new nuclear-plant designs:  designers must show how the plant will withstand the intentional crash of a commercial airliner into it.  Probably the truth of the matter is that nobody knows what would have happened if the 9/11 attackers had targeted the Indian Point plant instead of the symbolically much more attractive World Trade Center towers.  But it’s clearly something we don’t want to learn about from experience.

The UT Austin report will probably be criticized as an academic armchair exercise by those who spend their lives in the nuclear industry.  But academics who are remote from day-to-day issues in an industry can nevertheless bring different and sometimes valuable perspectives to a problem, and so I hope the report’s suggestions of how to improve nuclear security in the U. S. contribute to the ongoing challenges of living with nuclear materials, benefiting from them where possible, and not allowing them to fall into the wrong hands.

Sources:  I referred to a news article about the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project’s report which appeared on the CNN website on Aug. 15, 2013 at  The Project’s working paper itself can be accessed at  Full disclosure:  I hold a Ph. D. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a part-time research professor appointment there. My blog on the protesting nun and her group appeared on May 27, 2013. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Cybercrime: Prevention or Punishment?

Last week I needed an item at a Harbor Freight store in Austin.  Harbor Freight deals in low- to mid-priced tools imported from China, and unless you’re looking for something that will last for decades, it’s a good place to shop.  As soon as I walked in the door, one of the cash-register attendants came up to me and said, “Just to let you know, our registers are down and all we’re taking is cash right now.”  I’m one of those troglodytes (look it up) who prefers cash anyway, so this didn’t bother me other than the fact that I had to wait in a long line that was backed up because the sales clerk had to look up each item’s SKU on a handheld unit, write down the price by hand, add up the total on a calculator, and make change. When I paid for my item, the clerk asked me if I minded not getting a receipt.  I replied, “Not as long as somebody doesn’t stop me at the door for shoplifting.” 

While I was waiting in line, I saw posted next to the register a notice from Eric Smidt, Harbor Freight’s president.  It was about a recent incident of hacking that resulted in the theft of a large number of their customers’ credit-card numbers, and said that the firm was taking every possible step to deal with the problem.  Whether this issue had anything to do with their registers going down that day is unclear, but it got me to thinking about the differences between old-fashioned analog theft and cybercrime.

Now if dozens of Harbor Freight customers had been koshed on the heads as they left the stores and had their wallets taken, I bet you would have heard about it in the news.  Old-fashioned personalized one-on-one crime like that is much more likely to be reported by the injured individual, and because the criminals tend to be local, the local jurisdiction responsible has a fairly straightforward job on its hands, once the crook is identified.  But those responsible for the Harbor Freight data breach could be literally anywhere in the world that there is an Internet connection, which means just about anywhere in the world. 

Cybercrime is a lot less risky.  According to online reports, the Harbor Freight breach may have been one of 2013’s largest in terms of numbers stolen, comparable to a similar attack that netted about 2.4 million customer debit and credit card numbers.  The company found out about the attack in June, when credit-card firms began noticing a lot of fraudulent charges to accounts owned by Harbor Freight customers.  Apparently the hackers penetrated the company’s main network and gained access to data from all 400 of its retail stores.

There are several ways the criminals can profit from their ill-gotten numbers.  The retail way is to use the cards themselves to buy stuff they want.  My own credit-card number was stolen this way once, and in the list of charges that my bank seriously doubted I’d made were things like services at an upstate New York spa and jewelry charged to a Las Vegas store.  But the big money is in the wholesale underground exchange of hard cash for hot credit-card lists, and I suspect that is what the Harbor Freight crooks did with their numbers.

Because it’s so hard to catch and convict cyber criminals, most companies rely instead on anti-virus software, firewalls, and other protective measures rather than spending a lot of effort in working with law enforcement personnel to catch the perpetrators.  But a recent study by a group of researchers based in Cambridge, England points out that this may not be the most cost-effective approach. 

The study shows that the amount of money lost per person to number theivery such as occurred with the Harbor Freight customers is in the range of a few dollars per customer per year.  On the other hand, the money spent by firms on computer security measures may exceed what is lost to this type of cybercrime.  The authors say it might be cheaper overall to spend more money on tracking down the relatively small number of cyber criminals, and less on security measures.

That is good advice as far as it goes, but it neglects the hard problem of jurisdictional diversity, as you might call it.  Say you can locate the Harbor Freight perpetrators, and they turn out to live in a country that has a dysfunctional government that can’t enforce ordinary laws, let alone laws about cybercrime.  Short of mounting an armed invasion of the country to catch the crooks, a private firm or even another sovereign country has its hands tied.  Unless some effective international agreements could be made for the extradition of cyber criminals, and some uniform laws passed in every host country that makes the same actions illegal everywhere, it will continue to be very hard to punish those who steal data across international boundaries.  Look at the trouble the U. S. government has had with Eric Snowden, who committed a data breach of NSA information right here in the U. S. and then ran off with it to Russia, which has recently granted him asylum.  Once international relations and antagonisms get mixed into a criminal act, things get vastly more complicated.

Overall, we benefit greatly from the worldwide coverage of the Internet for both global commerce and less quantifiable benefits such as the freedom to communicate political and cultural ideas across boundaries.  These benefits come at a cost, however, and it looks like unless the international jurisdiction problem can be addressed more effectively than it has been in the past, we will have international cybercrime with us for the foreseeable future.  And despite Eric Smidt’s assurances, which I’m sure are sincere, the next time I go to Harbor Freight I think I’ll bring cash along.  But I think I’ll ask for a receipt.

Sources:  A report on the Harbor Freight data breach can be found at the Bank Info Security website at  The Cambridge cybercrime report is discussed at  And the difficulties of prosecuting crimes in different jurisdictions are described well by Deb Shinder at

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Things That Didn’t Happen To Flight 214

Just moments before Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was to land at the San Francisco International Airport on July 6, some passengers noticed that backdraft from the jet engines was kicking up seawater.  This usually doesn’t happen on normal approaches to Runway 28L, which extends from just behind a seawall that faces San Francisco Bay onto land.  A few seconds later, the main landing gear hit the seawall and sheared off.  After that impact, both engines and the tail section came off, carrying some passengers and crew with it.  The main fuselage slammed into the runway and spun almost completely around before grinding to a halt. 

Flight attendants sprang into action, assisting passengers who needed help in exiting the aircraft.  One injured girl was pulled from the plane by a first responder, only to be covered in firefighting foam from arriving fire trucks.  Sadly, another emergency vehicle’s driver failed to see her underneath the foam, and she was struck and killed.  Another passenger died at the scene and a third passed away a few days later from injuries.  All of the other 304 people aboard survived, including all the pilots and crew, although some sustained serious injuries.  After the plane was evacuated, a fire from an oil leak demolished much of the fuselage, but without injuring anyone.

Any fatal accident involving air travel is a tragedy—usually an avoidable one.  But this accident could have been much worse, and that fact carries with it some implicit good news. 

For one thing, the Boeing 777 involved is a model that was introduced in 1995, and this 2013 accident is the first one involving loss of passenger lives in a flight-related accident.  Although fatal accidents have occurred earlier, they involved refueling or other ground-based situations.  This is an outstanding safety record compared to planes developed during the earlier years of aviation.

Another fact worth noting is that the landing gear was purposely designed to break away under a sufficiently large impact, rather than staying attached to cause a destructive nosedive.  We are familiar with breakaway traffic signs on highways, but I wasn’t aware until now that the same principle has been designed into landing gear.

Finally, the fact that the fuselage endured the abuse of skidding thousands of feet down the runway sans landing gear and kept the remaining fuel from catching fire, staying together long enough for everyone to escape, is a testimonial to its structural engineering.  I am no mechanical engineer, but somebody did something right to make a fuselage that would hang in there during such a trial.

There are things that no airframe can endure, of course.  If the plane had encountered a large immovable object, for example, the outcome might have been quite different.  A similar accident in some ways to the Asiana Airlines crash took place on August 2, 1985.  A Delta Airlines Lockheed L-1011 with 163 people on board was caught in a microburst and windshear during a thunderstorm at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport during its final landing approach.  The sudden loss of airspeed and accompanying downdraft forced the plane to the ground north of the runway, where it skidded into some giant water tanks and exploded.  Only 26 people survived.  Windshear detectors have since been installed at many airports, and pilots are much more aware of the dangers of such conditions, so the cause of that particular crash is much less likely to occur these days.

The cause of the Asiana crash is still under investigation, but attention has been focused on the flight crew, which consisted of three captains and a first officer.  The man actually flying the plane at the time of the crash had less than fifty hours’ experience on 777s, and was being instructed by the pilot in command, who occupied the co-pilot’s seat at the time.  The runway’s instrument landing system (ILS) vertical glide slope was out of service and a notice had been issued to that effect.  This made it impossible to execute an ILS landing to the runway.  Records indicate that the various automated landing-assistance systems were manipulated during the approach, and it may not have been clear to the flight crew that their approach was too low and slow until it was too late to do anything about it.  The laws of inertia are always in force, and a lot of advance planning has to be done to bring a huge heavy object like a 777 in contact with the ground safely.  Although final conclusions will have to await the completion of the ongoing investigations, it appears that pilot error may be at the bottom of this accident.

As long as human pilots fly planes, we will always have to contend with the possibility of pilot error.  But in general, air travel is safer now than it has ever been, in terms of fatalities per passenger-mile flown.  Even the absolute numbers of fatalities per year, which obviously stood at zero until the invention of the airplane, continues a downward trend that began in the 1970s, and is the lowest since about 1954.  And the total number of passenger-miles flown in 1950 was only about 2% of what it was in 1990. 

The Asiana crash may have stemmed from confusion about who was in charge—the autopilot mechanisms or the real pilot.  But for the vast majority of planes and flights, the amazing system of man and machine called air travel operates efficiently, economically, and with a safety record that was unimaginable in the early days of flight.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “Asiana Airlines Flight 214,” “Delta Airlines Flight 191,” “USAirways Flight 1549,” and “Aviation safety.”  I also obtained statistics on air travel safety from a paper by Prof. Dan Bogart of UC Irvine which can be found at