Monday, November 25, 2013

Do You Smell Gas? Thank New London

On Thursday, March 18, 1937, a seventh-grade girl named Sibyl sat in a school bus outside the junior-senior high school building built four years earlier in the unincorporated town of New London, Texas.  In contrast to the rest of the nation, New London and the surrounding area of East Texas were prospering from a local oil boom, and many of the school's students came from families drawn to the area by oil-field jobs.  Sibyl had mistakenly left her class early, but rather than go back inside and look foolish, she had decided just to wait in the bus until school let out for the day in another twenty minutes or so.  Suddenly, at 3:17 PM, she saw the entire front of the building rise several feet into the air and then collapse into a huge pile of dust with a thunderous crash.  She had just narrowly escaped what turned out to be the worst school disaster in the history of the United States.  Over three hundred children and adults died either in the explosion itself or as a result of injuries they sustained in it.  The cause?  Odorless natural gas.

As you may know, natural gas has no characteristic odor of its own.  By law, a malodorant must be added to natural gas for non-industrial users such as homes, businesses, and schools so that a leak will call attention to itself by means of smell.  One of the compounds used, butyl mercaptan, is so stinky that the average human nose detects it at a level of 0.33 parts per billion.  That concentration amounts to one teaspoon of malodorant in a cube of air about 25 meters (80 feet) on a side.  While gas leaks and explosions still occur, the chances of detecting a leak before it causes an explosion are much better when the gas contains a malodorant. 

Flammable gas has been used for domestic light and heat since the early 1800s, but until the discovery of large supplies of natural gas, piped-in gas was a relatively costly type of utility that was confined to cities.  By contrast, the oil wells around New London freely produced so much natural gas that it was (and still often is) considered a waste product, and was flared off near wells in towering flames that burned day and night and could be seen for miles.  The oil companies piped some of it around in what were called bleed-off lines to supply power for their own operations, and because many of New London's residents were already familiar with oilfield equipment and piping, tapping a nearby gas line for free raw natural gas became a common practice.  Although it was technically illegal, someone with the requisite skills could install his own private gas line to an oil lease's bleed-off line, and enjoy free gas instead of paying the local gas utility for it. 

It is a matter of record that a couple of months before the 1937 explosion, W. C. Shaw, superintendent of the New London schools, authorized a janitor to disconnect the schoolhouse from the local gas utility and tap a nearby bleed-off line instead.  Mr. Shaw apparently viewed this as a cost-saving measure, similar to the earlier decision when the school was built to forego the usual steam-boiler-radiator heating system, and instead install an extensive gas piping system and some seventy gas space heaters instead. 

In My Boys and Girls Are in There, a recent book on the tragedy, historian Ron Rozelle notes that many subsequent summaries of the disaster tend to blame Superintendent Shaw for endangering the lives of his charges with the decision to use free untreated bleed-off gas.  The critical question, which Mr. Rozelle doesn't answer in the book, is whether the local gas company was adding malodorant to its product at the time.  Such a practice was widespread by 1937, but by no means universal.  If the utility's gas was odorless as well, then the decision to switch to bleed-off gas made no difference, because the leak that caused the explosion would not have been any easier to detect.  The main reason that the explosion was so severe and extensive was that the poured-concrete school building had a single, poorly ventilated, and uninterrupted crawl space beneath the entire front part of the building, under eight inches of solid concrete floor.  Since natural gas (primarily methane) is lighter than air, this crawl space formed a good container for thousands of cubic feet of gas, which was touched off on that fatal day when a shop teacher switched on an electric sander in the basement. 

While the New London explosion dominated national news for a week or so, it faded quickly as other events diverted the public's attention.  Like war veterans often do, survivors of the explosion usually refused to talk about it afterwards.  However, one survivor, fifth-grader Carolyn Jones, had the courage to make a speech to the Texas House and Senate in Austin only a week after the explosion, urging that safety measures be passed to prevent another disaster like the one at New London.  The result?  Two laws:  one requiring all natural gas for domestic purposes to contain a malodorant, and the other requiring that anyone working on residential natural-gas lines for residential use must be trained and certified for such work by the state of Texas.  The publicity of the New London disaster furnished ammunition for the passage of similar laws in other states, so that eventually, all natural gas sold for household use would carry its own portable detection system, namely, a bad smell.

The New London explosion and its aftermath form a familiar pattern:  first an innovation (the use of natural gas for domestic gas supplies was fairly new in the 1930s); then a tragedy resulting from inadequate safeguards, ignorance, or other factors; then regulations, or a change in good engineering practices, or both, all inspired by the tragedy.  It would be nice if engineers were able to anticipate everything that could go wrong in a novel situation.  But human ingenuity being both fallible and limited, sometimes we have to learn from mistakes, and the more costly the mistake in terms of lives, the faster we learn.  While nothing will ever bring back those three hundred lives lost on that East Texas afternoon seventy-six years ago, it is some comfort to know that their lives were not lost in vain, and that gas users around the globe are safer as a result. 

Sources:  I thank Andrea Nelson and Stephen Paul for bringing my attention to Ron Rozelle's book My Boys and Girls Are in There (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2012), which I relied on for most of the material in today's column.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the history of manufactured gas, thiols, and tert-butylthiol.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Privacy in Public: Mobile Phones and Personal Spaces

The other evening I was waiting in line in a cafeteria, and the woman ahead of me, who was rather short, was reading her phone.  A few years ago, the phrase "reading her phone" would have ranked as nonsense, but nowadays when most mobile phones seem to do everything a desktop computer used to do, only faster, reading your phone has become a humdrum, routine part of life.  Anyway, she was flipping through what looked like either twitters or Facebook comments, and I, being a compulsive reader of anything in my field of vision, began to read along with her.  The content was nothing remarkable—little notes from friends about what other friends were doing, pictures of small children (grandchildren?), comments about an upcoming wedding—I frankly forgot nearly all of what I saw a few minutes after I saw it.  What stuck with me was a question:  what exactly was I doing in reading that lady's phone over her shoulder?  What would you call it?  And does the fact that you can do something like that have any larger implications?

I don't need a Ph. D. in moral philosophy (which I don't have anyway) to know that it was wrong to read somebody else's private messages, from whatever source derived.  Nowadays, of course, they may not really be private.  On Facebook and personal blogs and so on, people make public all sorts of matters that earlier generations would have buried deep inside a locked diary.  But the presumption is that the content of a person's own phone is, well, personal and private.  And it was not right for me to read her mail, so to speak.  I watched an old movie the other night which had a plot that turned on the theft of a letter—a theft that was noted by a landlady, who called the cops and brought the whole criminal scheme tumbling down thereby.  Stealing a letter is an overt, easily documented act.  But just looking over somebody's shoulder in a cafeteria line—who can tell what you're seeing? 

The closest word I can think of that means something like what I did is "eavesdropping,"  but that involves hearing, not seeing.  "Eyedropping" won't work—it sounds like what goes on in an opthalmologist's office.  "Spying" would cover it, but I didn't go to the cafeteria with the intention of snooping on somebody else's phone messages.  I just happened to be standing where, without any real effort or intention on my part, I was able to read private material.  The parallel between that and a situation where you are in a restaurant booth and can't help overhearing conversations in the next booth is pretty exact. 

Whatever it should be called, it's something that happens more and more often as people with portable electronic communications devices take over public spaces in subtle but significant ways.  What about those folks who have either an ear-mounted phone, or one of those little earbud-cord microphones that you have to look closely to see?  They're the same ones who conduct one-sided phone conversations in hallways or sidewalks at normal volume, so that at a distance they give every appearance of talking with an invisible companion, which leads one to doubt their sanity until you get close enough to see the electronics they're talking to.  We don't mind people having normal conversations in public when both parties are right there, so why should we mind if one of the participants happens to be at the other end of an electronic link?  I'm not sure, except that sometimes people talk about things over the phone that they wouldn't mention in a public place.  And if they're doing it over a mobile phone, they sometimes tend to forget their surroundings, and passersby end up privy to TMI (too much information).  This is just as discourteous as what I did to the lady in front of me in the cafeteria line, but it's discourtesy of a different type. 

The real problem, I think, is that the boundary between public and private is getting really fuzzy, and you can get into trouble if you mix up the two.  Saying, "I'd like to kill you!" out in a field where only you and your listener can hear you is one thing.  It may be a serious threat, or it may be nothing more than a joke between well-acquainted friends.  But saying the same thing on Facebook or another internet-mediated forum can land you in jail.

Here are two pieces of advice, one for users of technologies that tend to make the private public, and the other for bystanders who end up hearing or seeing something that the user didn't intend for you to hear or see.  For users, try to realize that while you may be focused just on your friends you are chatting with, the medium you are using is full of holes that leak information to casual passersby—people just browsing the sidewalk or the web, and even folks you may be trying to keep a secret from.  So use some discretion in what you look at or say.  If you wouldn't want to hear someone else saying what you're saying, don't say it, or at least wait for a more private circumstance than looking at your phone while waiting in line or talking through your earbud mike at a crowded bus stop.

And for bystanders, I would say that while sometimes you really can't help overhearing or "overseeing" someone's private information, you can help what you do with it.  If you can read somebody else's email over a shoulder, well, quit it.  If you can hear somebody's private conversation, maybe move to a chair where you can't.  And otherwise, try to be nice even to thoughtless or nasty people.  To some folks, old-fashioned courtesies such as beginning a letter with "Dear" look hypocritical:  if you aren't really dear to me, why should I address you that way?  But courtesy is the social lubricant that you don't wake up the next day with a hangover from.  It makes life easier and more pleasant for all of us, and while it has aspects of hypocrisy, I like to think of it as more like clean, well-tailored clothing that covers a less-than-presentable body.  And come to think of it, that's something else that is out of fashion, and maybe for the same reason.  But just as there is good taste in clothing, there is good taste in the use of mobile phones, and here's hoping more people use them more tastefully.

Sources:  After I wrote this blog, I found a website that makes most of my points and more, and with pictures.  It's "How to Practice Cell Phone Etiquette" at  Highly recommended.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Democracy By Sampling

If you had stopped by my house last Saturday, you would have seen me seated on the front porch in a folding chair, watching a presentation on a laptop connected to a notebook computer, which was in turn operated by a woman seated in another folding chair.  The woman works for a contractor to the U. S. Department of Commerce.  The contractor, Abt SRBI, performs high-tech surveys for government agencies.  Instead of pencils and clipboards, the woman brought along the aforementioned technology that she used to show me the options I had for each answer, as well as photographs and other information related to the survey questions.  My subject today is not so much the actual content of the survey (which she requested I keep confidential so as not to bias other potential participants), but the entire process of which the survey was a part, which I'm calling "democracy by sampling."

One vital aspect of engineering ethics is to consider all the stakeholders in a given case, including members of the public liable to be affected by a proposed course of action.  I think it's okay for me to say this much about the survey:  it dealt with a proposed program that the Department of Commerce may implement, and would entail substantial costs to be borne by the U. S. taxpayer.  The program would address an environmental issue which it turns out I have discussed in this space in the past, and it would deal with it in a way that struck me as egregiously boneheaded.  And I told them so.

But unless you, gentle reader, are one of the 1500 or so people nationwide selected to participate in this survey, if you wish to register your opinion on this subject with the government, you are out of luck.  This is unfair, but all too symptomatic of a disheartening trend that has picked up the momentum of an avalanche in recent years.

The ideal of democratic government is that it is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "of the people, by the people, for the people."  The preposition in question here is "by."  Ultimately, the authority of government is to vest in the people governed.  The means by which this power is exercised in our type of government is through the legislative branch, meaning Congress.  Originally, the only role of the executive branch was to see that the laws were "faithfully executed." 

But beginning in the Progressive era of the early 1900s, a different view of government arose, which can be summarized as government by experts.  The basic idea is that modern life is too complex to leave governance solely to the slow, messy process of legislating laws.  Instead, new powers should devolve upon educated specialists in such fields as finance, technology and its regulation, commerce, and human relations, and we should allow these experts to make such rules as they think best—rules that have the full force of law.  So far, any agency of this type still holds before its face a mask of democracy, in that the agencies exercising such power have to be established by Congress.  But there are so many of them now that Congress can no longer exercise anything like proper oversight anymore.  The result is that executive agencies like the Department of Commerce and its divisions are left to their own devices and desires.

I will grant this to the Department:  in commissioning the survey I participated in, they are genuinely seeking the input of the public, or at least a sample thereof.  They didn't have to do that—as far as I know, they could just haul off and implement the new program they're considering without asking anybody, and we would all just have to live with it.  So they are at least making a gesture toward the idea of democracy.  But it is an ineffectual gesture, in my opinion.

As a part of the survey, I had an opportunity to "vote" for or against the program, and to give reasons for doing so.  But this "vote" is to real voting as hypocrisy is to holiness.  What if we "voted" to elect the President this way?  It would save tons of money and trouble.  Instead of the Electoral College and all that campaign fundraising and advertising and so on, we'd just hand the whole thing over to Abt SRBI, whose experts would come up with a carefully selected sample of 1500 or so voters, and the rest of us would just wait to find out the results, as determined by the experts.  So much more efficient—so much more scientific.

And so much more opposed to the basic notion of rule by law, and not by men.  One of the big reasons that the thirteen British colonies broke away from England was that they were being taxed by those whom they did not elect.  Based on the information I received during the survey, the proposed program would have done exactly that—nothing was mentioned about any enabling legislation.  This sort of thing happens all the time.  The Environmental Protection Agency's decision to categorize carbon dioxide as a pollutant is a shining example of how unelected bureaucrats can unilaterally proclaim costly regulations, and those injured are forced to undertake expensive legal battles as their only recourse. 

The Department of Commerce deserves one small cheer for consulting me about their idea.  But the whole executive branch gets a loud razz for continuing its drive toward government by bureaucracy that has compromised freedom and due process in this country so severely, that some days I wonder if we can ever get them back again.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Drones, Air Safety, and the FAA

On May 10, 2012, in the South Korean city of Incheon, an engineer from the Austrian company Schiebel was demonstrating to South Korean military personnel his firm's S-100 camcopter, a 150-kilogram remotely piloted drone aircraft that could assist South Korean patrol operations at the country's border with North Korea.  In the midst of the camcopter's flight, it suddenly veered out of control and crashed into the control van where the engineer was sitting, setting the van on fire.  Two Koreans were injured and the Austrian engineer was killed.  Speculation immediately arose that the loss of control stemmed from intentional jamming of GPS (Global Positioning System) frequencies by North Korea, which has caused numerous navigational problems in the area in the past. 

Drones, a term that includes helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and anything else that flies without a human on board, have played a major role in warfare for at least a decade.  But prices are falling and capabilities are rising to the extent that commercial and private interests are now wanting to use drones for a wide variety of applications, ranging from surveillance in domestic law enforcement to cargo transport.  Federal Express has even expressed an interest in using pilotless aircraft instead of manned cargo planes, for example.  But in an article in the November issue of Scientific American, two "drone-spoofers" from the University of Texas at Austin raise serious questions about the safety and legal aspects of using drones these ways.

Around the same time that the S-100 crashed in South Korea, UT researchers Kyle Wesson and Todd Humphreys took command of an $80,000 drone at the White Sands Missile Range as part of a demonstration to show how easy it is to distract such aircraft by sending out false GPS signals.  Because GPS signals are so feeble in most locations, it takes relatively little radio-frequency power to overwhelm the real signals from satellites with cleverly devised fake ones.  Once you have taken over the GPS receiver of a drone that relies on GPS for navigation (as many semi-autonomous drones do), you can lead it like a dog on a leash.  Wesson and Humphreys carried their spoof just far enough to show that they did indeed control the craft, and then a backup manual operator took control and landed it safely. 

This demonstration shows that while drones have gained greatly in technical sophistication and capabilities, including the ability to fly completely without manual control from a human operator, the regulatory environment has not kept pace.  The Federal Aviation Administration is charged with the responsibility of making U. S. airspace safe, first of all, then hospitable to air travel for both humans and cargo.  The outstandingly good safety record of air travel in this country is partly due to the FAA's conservatism with regard to changes in the basic way it does things.  

On a flight I took recently from New Jersey to Texas, the captain put the cockpit's air-traffic control channel on one of the audio channels at every seat, and I spent most of the flight eavesdropping as he checked in with a total of six or eight way-stations of the air along our route.  It was reassuring in a way, but at the same time I was impressed by the fact that such conversations would be completely familiar to a pilot who last flew in 1959.  The FAA follows the principle of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and they change their basic procedures about air-traffic control very slowly, if at all.  A major change from radar-based control to satellite-based control involving GPS is in the works, but the present system will remain in place for nearly a decade into the future.

Wesson and Humphreys worry that in the shift to the new system, drones will be left to fall between two stools.  If the new rules for air traffic control make no provision for drones, the whole field could be crippled by the absent-mindedness or hostility of legislators and regulators.  Already, several states have adopted anti-drone-surveillance laws arising from privacy concerns.  These laws would not directly impact the transportation aspects of drone use, but could severely handicap legitimate surveillance with drones.  If the FAA requires that licensed unmanned aircraft always be within visual sight of the operator, that would make drones unusable for most of the promising applications their developers hope to find.  But on the other hand, if it is really as easy as it seems for someone to take control of a GPS-equipped drone, there has to be some way to prevent that from happening if the public safety is to be protected from large, heavy machines falling out of the sky.

The FAA traces its history back to the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which charged the U. S. Department of Commerce with taking actions to ensure the safety of the then-novel field of air travel.  While Congress's delegation of authority to quasi-autonomous agencies has been abused in recent years, the FAA has by and large been a poster child for how a federal agency should behave, keeping safety uppermost in mind while restraining itself from issuing industry-crippling regulations.  It has accomplished this feat by embodying the best features of conservatism and by basing decisions on sound technical arguments as well as on politics.  It remains to be seen whether the FAA can manage to incorporate drones in its next major upgrade of the way it keeps people and things safe in the skies.

We are entering an era in which artificial intelligence and remote control systems are bidding fair to replace human transportation operators in many fields:  railroads, automobiles, and now aircraft.  It will be interesting to see whether those in charge of the FAA's safety regulations can adapt them to accommodate beneficial uses of remotely-controlled and autonomous vehicles without putting the public at undue risk of accidents.  How the FAA handles drones will be a test case for a number of other similar problems that will arise in the near future.

Sources:  The November 2013 issue of Scientific American carried the article "Hacking Drones" by UT Austin researchers Kyle Wesson and Todd Humphreys on pp. 54-59.  I referred to an article on the fatal South Korean drone accident at and a brief summary of the history of air traffic control in USA Today at, as well as the Wikipedia article on the Federal Aviation Administration.